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‘I want to help students see the beauty in math’

Why I Teach: Eric Retan

Wyoming — Teacher Eric Retan has been sharing his love of math and showing students how the subject is relevant, fun and interesting for the past 25 years. 

He teaches Algebra 2, Advanced Placement Statistics and, new this year, AP Precalculus. He also leads Chess Club after school, and in previous years has led Math Circle, where students have fun solving advanced math problems; and Math Cafe, where they can come for tutoring.

Retan, who plays chess as a hobby, recently took a break from watching students strategize with their kings, queens and pawns to talk about teaching.

What is the thing that gets you up in the morning and excited about teaching? “My love of my students and (of) the math, combined. I love that every day is different and every day presents unique challenges. No day is ever the same. I have a strong love of math and I am excited about teaching math and helping kids learn math. It’s just about spreading that joy to my students, and that excitement.

“I try to help students see that math is creative. It’s not about what’s in a textbook or on a worksheet; it’s about the process of solving problems and thinking creatively and logically at the same time.

“I try to bring it to life as much as I can and … make it something that is accessible, something students can see themselves doing and being successful at.”

What are some of the biggest challenges and how do you strive to meet them? “I think the last few years I’ve noticed more

and more with social media and phones that students are very easily distracted. One of my biggest challenges is keeping them interested in what we are doing in class and making sure whatever we are doing is engaging. It’s hard to compete with a (cell) phone. Making sure students see the relevance in what we are doing is always a challenge.”

What’s an example of a lesson that shows students relevance? “In statistics, we talk a lot about collecting data and using the results to analyze and make conclusions. Today we did an experiment where we were trying to determine if caffeine affects pulse rate. Students collected data. They felt their own pulse and we carried out an experiment in class. They were assigned to drink caffeine-free or regular Pepsi. Then they had to check their pulse at the end of the hour.” (Students found no connection.)

What are some of the biggest differences in teaching pre- and post-pandemic? “I’ve always valued student collaboration, so it was very challenging for me during the pandemic to try to get that collaboration and have students talking about math in class, because we were trying to distance ourselves so we had to think of new, creative ways digitally to be collaborative.

“Now, coming back post-pandemic, I’ve found that collaboration is something I have to work extra hard at. Students don’t seem as comfortable collaborating, but it’s something I’ve always valued so it’s something we keep talking about; we keep pushing and I keep encouraging.”

What’s the most amazing thing about high school students? “They have hopes and dreams about their future. Many of my students are goal-driven. They have an idea about what they want to do or at least what they are interested in.”

What would you say to someone considering teaching as a profession? “It’s very challenging, but it’s also very rewarding. For me, one of the best parts is the challenge. I wouldn’t want to be in a profession where I’m not challenged. Even after teaching 25 years, (he spent his first year teaching in Lake Orion) I don’t have it all figured out.  There is nothing better than having past students come back to talk about what they have accomplished and what they are doing now. That is extremely rewarding.”

Eric Retan leads Chess Club at Wyoming High School

What do you like about teaching math?

“Because I love it and enjoy doing math so much, I love seeing students discover that joy. A lot of times math is taught in a way that is not creative — that is, more of a dry, black-and-white subject. That’s changed over the past several years, a lot, but I want to help students see the beauty in math and the creative. It’s fun to see students’ eyes light up when they realize math can be fun and (that) they can be successful in it.”

Why do you like to offer Chess Club and other after-school opportunities for students? “It’s great to get to know students in a different context, outside the classroom … The other thing that’s really fun is to see students that wouldn’t normally interact play a game and have fun together in a competitive way.”

What else would you like to say about teaching? “I feel fortunate that I have been able to do this for 25 years. I still love what I do, and I think that’s the key to being successful in having a career in anything, and teaching especially. It takes lots of energy. You have to have that love or it’s not going to go as well.”

Read more from Wyoming: 
Garden education program teaches ‘everything from seed to plate’
What will happen to Pumpkin Jack? He’ll be back!

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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