Can you talk a bit about your journey to your current position?
I’m originally from Georgia. I graduated from Georgia State University and I joined AmeriCorps, which is like the Peace Corps but in the United States. I worked at high school, and fell in love with the teaching profession after that. Then I moved to DC in 2013 and I got into a teaching program. I’ve been at Friendship since. I started as an 8th grade resident teacher at Tech Prep. Then I taught 6th grade. Now I teach 10th grade geometry at Tech Prep High School. I have seen many changes and a lot of growth here.
You fall in love with the kids. You really do. Without the students, my passion runs low. I love teaching students something new and making them look at education in a different way. You have to teach them to love education and to love learning new things, even when they don’t see the direct benefits of it. This is why it is crucial to build a relationship with them, so you can inspire them to see the benefits of learning.
I work to make learning relatable. There are many different ways mathematics can relate to them, but it’s also important to make them understand that the more they know, the further they’re going to go (I know that’s corny, but true). I try to assist them to see that they shouldn’t just be learning because they have to go to high school. They should be excited to learn because it is something they want to know to add value to themselves. That’s why it’s not at all helpful to tell students, “You have to do this because it is mandatory” without helping them see the benefit of learning it.
When they come into class, I ask them to write down their dreams. I ask them, “What goals do you have for yourself? What do you want to do when you leave?” Then, when they tell me, “I don’t understand why I have to do this,” I always ask them to revisit their goals. I remind them that they need to have a high school diploma to become a police officer or a teacher—whatever they’re trying to become, they need to have a diploma to do it.
Referring back to their goals helps my students. I also try to limit offering external rewards like candy. I want them to have intrinsic motivation.
What do you like about teaching geometry?
I feel like I was, in a way, given geometry. At first, I was not at all excited about teaching it. I was like, “Oh no, no, no, no…” You hear about all of the horror stories, you know, and I feel like this is the one subject teachers shy away from. I looked at it as a challenge and thought, “Okay, if nobody else wants to teach it, I know I’m going to be very valuable if I know how to teach it well.”
So that was the challenge I set for myself. Then I fell in love with it because it is so relatable—it’s shapes, volume, it’s something that we actually use and it’s something you can see every single day. You don’t have to stretch so much. With algebra and pre-calculus you have to stretch really hard to make it relatable for them. Even if you used math to build a roller coaster, students still struggle to relate to such an abstract concept. But with geometry, I can actually show you the shapes I’m talking about.
If a student comes to me at the beginning of the year with previously bad experiences in math, I tell them, “This is your time to shine.You may have struggled with algebra, but geometry is your opportunity to have a different experience in math.” Many students who previously struggled with math do very well in geometry and are surprised by it. It teaches them that math doesn’t just look one way. I love hearing, “Oh, my gosh, I got an ‘A’ in math! I never got an ‘A’ in math before.” They really start to build confidence and realize, “Wait, I am good at math.” When this happens, it’s a life-changing experience for me as well.
It sounds like you really set them up for success at the beginning of the year. That’s wonderful. Are there any hands-on projects that particularly excite students?
Yes, there are a few. Constructions are something we work on that they’ve never seen before. They design a portfolio of constructions, which really builds their confidence. They say, “Okay, cool. I can build a project and it turns out really nice.” They use color pencils and get really creative with it. They build a positive relationship with math—one where it’s about practice and getting better.
Since I’ve been here for awhile, a lot of students know me. They have no problem with telling me, “I don’t understand” or “I’m not good at math.” I try to change the language at the beginning. I tell them, “Don’t say that or you really won’t be good at math.”
During one class, a student who previously struggled with math was trying to hide his smile in class. He was so excited that he understood what we were doing, and he was the only one who understood at the time. He was able to come up to the board for the first time and teach the topic to the class. He then walked around helping the whole class. I’d never seen him that excited before. To this day, he will say, “Ms. Lott, remember that one day I understood the assignment and nobody else did?” And, I reply, “Of course I remember. When you sit down and really focus on something, you will understand it.” There are so many more stories like that. I could talk about student growth forever. Some come with certain feelings about math, and when they’re negative, we work to get past that in my class.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you want to include in your spotlight?
I want to reiterate that you have to be able to teach to students’ potential; they don’t always show us the best side of themselves. You have to be the kind of teacher that shows it to them, that reminds them, “You can be successful. You can do this.” You do this in a way that holds them accountable and builds them up to where they see themselves being successful in math. We recently had the second highest growth in geometry on PARCC, the second in the district, and that’s because of hard work of course, but also the belief that they could have success on PARCC. If other schools were doing it, we could as well. In DC, there’s been a stigma of, “on the other side of the Anacostia, they’re different…” I wanted our scholars to see for themselves and to show others that even though it’s not always about taking tests, they can be successful on a test as well.
Students need to see themselves as capable, but also teachers need to see them in that light, too. Teachers need to know when it’s time to push them. We have some incredible students and they don’t always get portrayed in the best light. I always try to make sure they’re spotlighted in a major way when they’re doing well. They made history here and that’s what I wanted; now everybody is aiming to do that, which is really good.
You have to be passionate about it. It’s hard work, but you have to build relationships and stay as positive as humanly possible. Recently, I had one of my roughest years personally. I thought I was awful at everything. I had just had a child and was a new mom. At the same time I was teaching a new subject. It was hard, but I pushed through it. I tell my scholars that story because they don’t always see teachers as real people. I remind them, “We all have personal things we’re going through, but you have to continue to push yourself to be the best you can and do well.”