Meet Four Alums Who Came Back to TJ . . . to Teach Math
These four teachers grew up here, went to the same elementary, middle, and high school as their students, walked the same halls (they can say this for another year or so), participated in the same 8th period activities, and even had some of the very same teachers and coaches their students now have. It allows them not only to be prepared for what they will encounter in the classroom but also provides insight into their students’ lives. This gives them credibility with students as well as a unique perspective.
Marianne Razzino, ’98, is in her second year as Division Manager for Math and Computer Science, and her seventh year at TJ. She earned three degrees from Virginia Tech: a BS in Math Education, a BA in Spanish, and an MA in History. She initially planned to study architecture in college but switched at the end of her freshman year to Math Education.
“When I was little I thought I could be a florist, a librarian, and a teacher all at the same time. I would teach during the week, be a librarian in the evenings since we usually went to the library after school, and then be a florist on the weekends. I definitely thought about becoming a teacher or a professor when I was at TJ, but I am not sure I really ever thought about coming back to TJ to teach.”
Razzino taught at West Springfield for five years before coming to TJ and has also spent several summers teaching for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY).
A member of her class council at TJ and Graduation Committee Chair as a senior, she now sponsors TJ’s Student Government Association. “I enjoyed my time at TJ, in class and in 8th period, and was very excited to get to come back as a teacher.”
“I decided to be a teacher when I was very young. When I took algebra 1 in middle school, I started to say that I wanted to be a math teacher, and that never wavered. Math has always been my favorite. I am definitely the type of person who likes to be given a problem, work to solve it, and know that I eventually can get the right answer. I much prefer math tests to English papers (although when I was here, I had some great English teachers who prepared me well for any writing I have had to do). I have wanted to teach for as long as I can remember, and after my experience at TJ, I wanted to come back and help to continue this unique opportunity for others.”
Schmitt taught Honors and BC Calculus for seven years at West Springfield, “but coming to TJ has pushed me even farther.”
As a color guard coach at West Springfield and now at TJ, Schmitt is able to share her skill and enthusiasm for her life-long sport with students. As a member of Dynamics, an area twirling team where she now coaches, Schmitt competed in 19 years of nationals and 4 world championships. “I have been a baton twirler since I could walk. My mother is a coach, and so I was always in the gym. Twirling with the band is not a popular thing in this area, so I became involved with the color guard when I was at TJ. I was able to twirl for some of the show and was eventually color guard captain as a senior. Coaching twirling was my first lesson in teaching and has given me a lot of experience in instructing kids of all ages.”
Dennis Loo, ’94 is a first-year teacher, teaching Research Statistics and TJ Math3 (Algebra II). After graduating from Virginia Tech with BS degrees in Physics and Math, he worked as a private investigator and patent examiner in the DC area, and as a paralegal, tutor, and professional poker player in Boston, before obtaining a Master’s degree in Math Education from UVA.
Loo taught Math and Physics at Boston-area high schools, including a school for at-risk teens, but found the discipline problems distracting. What he really enjoyed were the summers he spent teaching at CTY camps. “Eventually, even a clueless guy like me gets the hint and realizes that if I was playing cards so I could spend six weeks each year teaching gifted teens, I might as well try to do it year round. I went to UVA for grad school with the explicit intention of working at a magnet school and trying to come back home. I hope to be here for a long time.”
Loo’s primary 8th period activity at TJ was math team, but he also participated in Quizbowl. He started to play in earnest while at Virginia Tech and eventually helped out with Harvard’s team when he lived in Boston. He now coaches TJ’s team.
Michael (Mike) Auerbach, ’95, has been at TJ nine years, and during that time has taught Intro CS, Algebra II Trig, Pre-Calculus, AB Calculus, and BC Calculus. He received a BS and M.Eng. in Operations Research from Cornell.
Auerbach wanted to be a teacher from the time he was eight years old. “I had an immediate feeling that I could be a good teacher.” His 8th grade math teacher at Longfellow MS, Vern Williams, was a particular inspiration. After sophomore year at TJ, however, thoughts of teaching slipped away as he got caught up in the college search (Auerbach spoke to students at Flow Day about keeping their dreams in focus despite peer and family pressure to follow the crowd). After earning his Master’s degree, he took a job with MITRE, where he worked for four years before realizing that he belonged in front of a classroom.
“TJ is the only place I’ve taught. I suppose I could do okay at another school, but I think I fit best at TJ because, due to my background, I have built-in credibility with the students that is very tough to get at TJ and that I wouldn’t necessarily have anywhere else.”
A football player back in high school, Auerbach started coaching football at TJ in 2003, three years before he joined the faculty, and has coached Freshman, JV, and Varsity and nearly every position. “My JV coach back when I was a student, Mark Travis, was the one who helped get me into coaching in 2003. We have coached together for several years now – he is now the Varsity Head Coach – and he was the best man at my wedding.” It could be said that even Auerbach’s marriage was a result of finding his flow in the classroom. Auerbach met first-year TJ English teacher Denise Castaldo when he was a first-year TJ math teacher, and the two married in 2011.
On the Question of Math Readiness
A new math curriculum was implemented this year in order to ensure that freshmen have enough statistics to interpret their IBET project results and also to ensure that students coming from a variety of middle schools are all ready to handle TJ’s rigorous math program. Each of the four teachers has a slightly different take on the math readiness issue.
Razzino believes that math is challenging for TJ students because “they are being asked to learn problem solving and critical thinking skills along with the math content. Those skills are absolutely necessary for success in our upper-level math courses, and some students have to learn them while they are trying to pick up a lot of difficult content.”
In Schmitt’s opinion, the students who do best at TJ are those with a firm grounding in algebra. “In Algebra 1, I don’t think students realize the connections that they will make with that material and their upper level courses. They need to fully comprehend each level of math to be able to apply that and move on to the next level. Many times when grading calculus papers, I see students who make algebra mistakes.”
Loo feels that some students arrive at TJ after having been accelerated too rapidly through math basics: “One of my best friends said that while he might have had the raw intelligence to handle algebra in 7th grade, he definitely didn’t have the maturity to take an honors-level high school class and concentrate long enough to understand it completely. For some kids the ability to concentrate comes easily but they haven’t yet developed good study habits. For others, it may be a purely developmental issue: There are some concepts that a developing brain may have trouble with when encountering them for the first time, even if those concepts will seem really easy if introduced just a year or two later.”
Auerbach, who holds office hours every day after school, sees a generational divide between students of today and those of just a few years ago. “Prior to the advent of the ‘Google generation,’ we had to solve problems that many people had already solved before, but it trained us to be problem-solvers. This new generation is not trained to solve problems, because as soon as they encounter one, they type the question into their phone and get the answer instantly.”
All of the teachers welcome the special challenge of teaching at TJ. As Razzino, the Department Chair puts it, “The students are always looking at problems from a different perspective and asking interesting questions. It is very rewarding to be able to show students what they can do with an interest in math and encourage them to seek out new opportunities and challenges for themselves.”