COLUMBIA — The question before Anthony Myers’ Algebra III class was this: How do you measure the length of a curve?
On this day, as most days, the energetic, bow-tied Myers isn’t about to divulge the answer easily. As the class got underway, the lanky first-year teacher paced. He bounced on his heels and dashed to his whiteboard to draw a quick illustration and then wandered the rows of desks to offer one-on-one instruction.
“You have to want it,” he urged his 22 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders at W.J. Keenan High School as they begin an exercise to figure out the connections among theta, radians, and, of course, that favorite symbol of mathematicians, Pi.
For the math-challenged, theta is the angle measure in radians. The radian is a ratio of a circle’s arc length to its radius. Mathematically, Myers explained, an angle measures 1 radian when the intercepted arc length is equal to the circle’s radius. Pi plays an important role in the calculations, as his students would soon discover.
That material might be considered rather dense for adults to absorb, much less teenagers, so Myers attempted to interject some real-world information into his lesson, noting that the concept is the same “as when the slice of pizza is the same length as its crust.”
“We are going to have real pizzas?” one student wit chimed in, causing a slight buzz of excitement to run through the classroom.
“That crossed my mind for exactly two milliseconds,” Myers grinned.
But the pizza image remained in the air as the students took bits of string and a compass and calculated exactly how many radians comprise the circumference of a circle. (For the record, the answer is 2 Pi R, with R representing radians.)
“Get that in your brains,” he told them.
Myers, who majored in mathematics at USC and holds a master’s degree in teaching with a concentration on math from the same institution, joined the faculty of Keenan High in August. He had completed his student teaching there the previous spring. Now, at 22, he is the youngest faculty member at the school.
As both a math major and certified teacher, he is a rare commodity in South Carolina, which, like states across the country, is facing a shortage of teachers in the arena known as STEM: science, technology, engineering and math.
“I think Anthony is a poster child of the type of students we like to graduate,” said Ed Dickey, a professor in USC’s College of Education’s Department of Instruction and Teacher Education who also served as an adviser to Myers. Armed with a grant from the Duke Energy Foundation, Dickey is heading up a USC initiative to lure more math and science majors into the teaching field.
Dickey said Myers met stringent math and science expectations of the program, but he also has the particular passion for teaching that makes it a calling. Myers himself said his own deep spirituality has led him to pursue teaching as a vocation. His wife, Cassie, has just completed a bachelor’s degree in art education at USC and hopes to teach at the high school level.
“I always wanted to teach in a public school,” said Myers, who knew at the age of 7 that he would be a math teacher. “I think it’s where I’m needed. I felt God calling me to a public school because there is just more need.”
Plus, he said, there is that wonderful engagement with 70 new students every year who are open to sharing their hopes and dreams, along with their problems. Many students at Keenan come from low economic backgrounds and he sees some struggle to juggle schoolwork while working part-time jobs to help their families.
“I told them the first day I didn’t want to create math masters,” he said. “I want to create problem solvers.”
His students say his methods work.
“When we do hands-on stuff, that’s what helps us,” said LaEtta King, 18 and in the 12th grade.
“He explains it and lets us do it for ourselves,” said Portia Chase, 17, an 11th-grader.
Myers practices an inquiry-based approach that was emphasized in his USC studies and he is also well versed in culturally relevant teaching, a pedagogy that emphasizes an understanding of students’ cultural backgrounds, Dickey said.
That is important knowledge for Myers, who is white, teaches predominantly black and Hispanic students and brings to the table a far different education background. Growing up in Irmo in a family of five children, Myers attended private Christian schools – Heritage Christian Academy and Ben Lippen School – skipped a grade and then was home-schooled his final two years.
“He sincerely believes he can’t teach in the way it worked for him,” Dickey said. “He has to employ methods his teachers perhaps never employed. I know he really gets the importance of sensitivity to the cultures of others, to make the lessons relevant.”
In his short time in the classroom, Myers has also discovered what those in the profession also know – some students will sop up knowledge like sponges while others will pass through with barely a nod to the material.
That has not diminished Myers’ enthusiasm and joy at being in the classroom, even as he casts a sometimes jaundiced eye on the culture of American public education, which he believes infuses students less with a love of learning than with a desire to get a grade and get out.
His Algebra III class is full of learners, kids who shout out answers and do their share of peer-teaching, explaining a complicated problem to a deskmate. During first block, he serves as facilitator to a class of three highly motivated Keenan students who are participating in the S.C. Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics Accelerate program. He also received special summer training to teach a Principles of Engineering class that includes top students.
But his afternoon Algebra II class is far less enthusiastic, full of teenagers who find math daunting and see no reason to do anything but the minimum.
“I would say 20 of them don’t want to learn,” he said. “That is something that I have to deal with every day. I can’t expect what happened in this class (Algebra III) to happen there. If I expected a great, fulfilling experience for the students in that class I would be discouraged.”
Fortunately, Myers said, the students love his own zest for math, even if they do not often share it, so he knows he is getting across the idea of showing respect for each other and for the subject.
“They might remember some of the math and they will be better problem solvers.”
Myers said he might one day pursue a Ph.D. in math and even teach on the university level. But for now, Keenan feels like home. If he teaches in South Carolina for eight years – and certainly state education administrators hope to retain teachers like Myers for the long haul – his student loans will be forgiven.
“The job is built for me,” said Myers, who arrives each work day at 7:30 a.m. “I love the administration at Keenan. I love the faculty. There is so much support here. It’s so rewarding to see the learning.”