Friday, September 28, 2012

It's Not Always About Math

"I know Mista, I did really bad. Imma come during lunch to get help."

I do a lot of legwork in the beginning of the year building relationships with my students. It's actually a tactic I learned in the finance world. As an investment banking analyst a.k.a. finance monkey, my day-to-day rarely comprised of human contact outside of my own colleagues. On most days and nights, I sat in my cubicle and built financial models, created presentations, and then made sure these materials were delivered on time to my managing director's Upper East Side condo before his black Lincoln Town Car came to drive him to the airport. Of course, I sent the materials to him using a separate company Town Car that would make the delivery and come back to the office. Simultaneously, I'd take another black Town Car back to my place on the company's dime for working into the wee hours of the night. What recession?..

It was rare for a low ranking monkey like me to travel. Sometimes I'd get to go on an actual pitch or travel with my deal team on a road show, but not often during the 2008 financial meltdown. When I did get a chance to tag along with the BSDs, I noticed something very important: it wasn't always about whether the ideas we were pitching were good or bad, it was really about fostering the banker-client relationship. BSD bankers didn't just wine and dine their clients, they literally had to fake a somewhat decent friendship. You had to remember details about your client's family, sports preferences, alma mater, etc. I could be wrong, maybe some of these friendships were real, but when bankers sniffed a deal it was hard to imagine they were doing this work to "help grow a friend's business."

So after a tough period of building a relationship and establishing trust with a new client, the client would finally be open to hearing a banker's insights into their business. There was usually a lot of back and forth involved: pitching, wining-and-dining, repeat. At some point, the client would give in and it seemed like he/she wanted this banker. Maybe it was a matter of prestige, trust, or perhaps plain old guilt; whatever it was, it worked and the bankers knew it. We all knew it was really difficult to get big clients to switch over to new bankers, even if the new bankers had really good, transformative ideas for a new client's business. Relationships, and a willingness to work hard in the beginning, reigned supreme in an investment banker's world.

When I started teaching, I applied what I had learned. I went to the cafeteria in the mornings to sit and "chill" with my students when they came in for breakfast. In the hallways during passing, I gave fist bumps and high fives to those who looked up or down. Instead of planning out every minute of the period, I let things ride, preferring natural conversation than forced structure and memorizing script. During lunch period recently, I skipped my "me" time to talk to students about how drug dealers have to deal with inflation, since it's mostly an all-cash business and cash loses 3% in value every year. "Sorry kids, but Chase doesn't offer a drug-lord investment account to combat inflationary forces," I said. I told them if they ever wanted to live a legit lifestyle and make money grow by itself, it wasn't going to happen with cash. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm lazy. Living a life where you're always looking over your shoulder? That's mad work, my guy."

Yes, my speech and writing also changes from time to time around my students. I want to meet them at eye-level, so to speak. Instead of writing "Excellent!" on math quizzes, I write "Wavy..." The kids seem to embrace the fact that I am able to use their language and I think they appreciate me not forcing them to adapt to my language preferances. It's part of building the relationship. Sure, I correct their grammatical errors in writing, but I also emphasize the importance of being able to code switch between the "professional" me and "casual" me. It's extremely important that they view our relationship less as student-teacher and more as little brother/sister-big brother.
Side note: Readers of this blog should note I'm in no way poking fun of my students' English skills when I quote them on this blog or when I use their speech. The quotes are there because that's what was said. I'm not going to change what was said in order to appear politically correct, especially since it's colloquial speech and doesn't need any sort of fixing, correcting, etc.
Back to the relationship building: don't get me wrong, I enjoy building relationships with my students for the sake of building relationships. If I didn't, I would've quit on day one three years ago. It's just about getting them to do things my way, without them actually feeling like they've lost a sense of control. Relationships lead to leverage, which I can then use for the greater good. For example, when I'm trying to introduce new material to a class and some students are disrespectfully talking over me, several students speak up and shut them up for me. I just have to give a look like I'm annoyed. When I've established relationships with students who then miss my class for a long period of time, I can feel their guilt. It's almost like they don't want to let me down, perhaps because they may believe I've helped give them a small boost of confidence in a subject matter they didn't feel confident about before.

Nothing works better in terms of classroom management than a handful of students in your room who truly respect you and want to impress you. Indeed, these are the students who want you not just as their teacher, but as their friend and mentor. The connections need to be made first, as the math can always be taught later.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Lessons from the Squatty Potty

Up until my early twenties, I spent every other summer in Karachi, Pakistan. I've grown to love the city, but it wasn't always like that. I hated going there when I was younger, when my mom had to drag me there by force. Of course, as an unworldly seven-year old, I wanted to spend my summer vacation playing Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. Don't get me wrong, I loved my extended family. I just didn't consider bonding with them in over 100 degree weather and rolling blackouts "fun." My mother often took my reluctance into consideration, but I knew she'd never let me win. She would buy our plane tickets anyway and tell me to shut the hell up because, "This is the only time I get to see my family. This is the only time I get to be away from your father. Cry all you want, we're going." Touché mom.

After what seemed like a week-long flight, we'd finally land in Karachi and make our way to the baggage claim. Since my dad never came with us, this meant I was doing the heavy lifting, which sucked because my mom abused the shit out of the baggage allowance policy. Between her and me, we had four very large, seventy-pound suitcases packed to the brim. Yes, in the 1990s the weight limit was seventy pounds, not sixty a.k.a. "the good old days." Only one of those suitcases actually carried our clothes, the rest were packed with gifts for family, friends, and random people who may need to be gifted later on in the journey. You never know I guess. Our carry-on bags were bursting at the seams. Even my Superman backpack, which was only supposed to be my stuff, was jammed with candies, perfumes, and jewelry. This is how we traveled.

After picking up our bags and funneling through immigration, we'd make our way towards the terminal exit: a giant glass wall with a sea of people pressed up against it from the outside. From afar, it looked like hundreds and hundreds of people were waiting for their families and friends to arrive. This was not anything like what an arrivals section of a U.S. airport would look like. Somewhere between the glass doors and immigration booths, the crisp, air-conditioned environment abruptly ends and Karachi's intolerable humidity bitch slaps me across the face. I'm sweating like I'm a grown man, but I'm not. Welcome to the real world, you spoiled American bastard. Now here's some diarrhea, enjoy.

I really could've done without diarrhea. As a kid, I could take the humidity and the heat if they were the only variables I had to manage. I'd eventually get over the constant need to shower, but diarrhea significantly limited my traveling radius. This meant I was usually grounded at an uncle or aunt's house for the majority of my stay. What made matters worse was that as a spoiled Westerner, I couldn't deal with the squat toilets some of my aunts and uncles had. Squat toilets were generally associated with a lesser wealth level and since my extended family's wealth levels were all over the place, I wasn't always safe. Whenever we'd visit Karachi, my mom would try to stay with at least everyone once. Obviously when I had the runs, I was very excited to stay with certain aunts and uncles more so than others. Sorry aunty, I have to be honest: it wasn't always your company I enjoyed, it was your coveted Western-style toilet.

Recent evidence suggests squat toilets are better for you, apparently because the position you assume while using it has many health benefits. Great, but I just can't see myself caring about this as a child. The way I saw it, if I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the bathroom, might as well be sitting down. Even that I couldn't have for the most part. By the end of our trips though, my weak American stomach ensured the squat toilet and I spent a great deal of time together. We came to be close friends, squatty and me. Perhaps it was all for the best, as these experiences provided me with prospective. I certainly wasn't rich back in Chicago, but simply living in America meant I led a somewhat relatively cushy life with regards to accommodations. A valuable lesson for any child to learn but, as Beavis and Butthead would say, "That lesson sucked."

Once I got over my own bowel movements, it was nice to experience life as a local. My mom always booked our Pakistan trips from early June through the end of August, which meant I spent a solid [insert diarrhea remark here] three months absorbing Karachi life, culture, and food. Schools in Karachi started August 1st, so I was able to enjoy two months of free time with my cousins before they were back to school. In fact, one of the best things my cousins ever did for me was to take me to school with them from time to time.

At my cousin's government elementary school, many students spent a great deal of time regurgitating textbooks. Classes were direct lecture or simply a teacher asking various students to read from a textbook aloud. Everyone took copious notes. After school, my cousins visited private tutors to understand the material better in groups. After these sessions, my cousins would recopy entire portions of textbooks into their notebooks, and then they would begin memorizing. They memorized word-for-word. The textbook was usually borrowed, which explained the copying.

I remember first learning about the earth's crust, mantle, and core from my cousin's notebook. She was three years older than me, which probably put her in the 5th or 6th grade at the time. She asked me to listen to her repeat from memory what she had written from in notebook. I was supposed to tell her if she missed anything. In her first try, her recitation was near perfect and I remember being completely impressed with her. These kids had memorized complete chapters, I wonder how many honor roll students these schools produce, I thought. Maybe we could all have jobs in America and I wouldn't have to visit these guys here so often. Clearly, I was an idiot and more importantly, I was wrong. It takes a lot more than knowledge, skills, and talent to get into a college or university if you're non-elite in Pakistan. It really just takes a shit ton of money and well-connected people, or maybe a family legacy. We talk about education inequity in America, but it's a different ball game abroad and sometimes it's really hard for me to work where I do, knowing what I know.

The memory of my cousin reciting her notes aloud depresses me now. If these kids have that kind of motivation and determination, what would be possible if Pakistan had a properly funded national education system? Sometimes I think about this memory and I wonder what I'm doing with myself in New York City. I spend a great deal of my work time in "planning" mode, carefully thinking about how to relate what I'm teaching to what's out there in the real world. I'm anticipating, "Yo Mista, what does this have to do with my life?" A simple, "Bro, it's on the Regents exam," isn't a good enough response, but it definitely would be abroad. Don't get me wrong, I'm very excited to help students connect math outside of the classroom, but from a cultural perspective, it seems I would lose them if I didn't make the content extremely interesting everyday. On the flip side, there are children on the other side of the world memorizing textbooks. Somehow, it's been drilled into their minds that education is their only way out.

I need to stop, my legs are sore from typing this on the pot.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Winning Respect

It's the kids' first day of school. When the bell rings and they start filling up my classroom, there's a brief, chaotic moment where I have absolutely no control or influence. They don't know me, so I haven't established my presence. Nobody knows who I am, yet everyone seating in their seats is desperately wanting to prove themselves. Everyone has their tough face activated.

There's a group of students that immediately run towards the back seats. Not all of them will have issues with noise or chit-chatting during class, some just want to be left alone. There are students who have to be loud about everything, because attention is their game. I foresee myself really enjoying toying with them for the rest of the year. A select few might even throw in a few cuss words out loud right before I'm about to speak, just to show how "bad ass" they are. "Fuck you bitch. Dat's my seat, n****." Buddy, I've heard a lot worse.

At this point, it's crucial to set the right tone. First impressions really do matter and at this point, I'm either going to win them over for the next fifty-five minutes (and essentially the next year), or it's a losing battle from day one. Decisions have to be made: will I be the asshole who picks every battle and wastes everyone else's time? Will I let everything slide and end up a pushover? I usually shoot for neither, and instead choose to tell my students about my own background. If a group of students choose not to listen, I will put them in their place with a slight brush of sarcasm. Nothing extreme enough to make them feel like shit about their actions, not yet anyway. I tell them where I came from and what makes me: my abusive childhood, where I went to college, where I worked before teaching, and why I quit. This story usually shuts them up for quite some time. Then the questions come, all at once.
"Yo Mista, dead ass you wuz makin' bread on Wall Street?" 
"Why'd you quit Mista? Fuck I would've stayed." 
"Shit, my n**** here made it and then told 'em to go fuck they-selves. Yo, so why you wanna work with us, seriously boss?" 
"Ay yo, anybody tell you you look like that Indian n**** from Harold and Kumar?" I think that's my favorite, by far.
They're at my fingertips now, because they've just heard a story of perseverance. More specifically, they just heard about my perseverance and I'm still standing there right in front of them. I made it big even though I grew up poor under a messed up home, something they can all relate to. I was standing in front of them and willingly left "making bread" because I thought money wasn't everything. I don't think they've ever met anybody yet who thought money wasn't everything. They're mind-fucked. They might think I'm stupid, they might think I'm cool, or they might not think anything at all, but they are thinking. This is how I win respect. In my fourth year, it's become pretty formulaic.

I have to be honest - I do drop a few cuss words while I tell my story, mostly on accident, but some on purpose. I tell my students I use cuss words with meaning and emphasis. "I don't want to sound like a jackass, dropping the F-bomb every other word. Why?" I pause and look around. They're so stunned I just dropped cuss words that I don't think they even heard my question. "Because then I look and sound like an uneducated asshole. Plus, you definitely paid a lot more attention when I just started swearing, but if I swore all the time, you wouldn't take me seriously." They're listening, quietly, and with focus. I continue, "You have learn how to code-switch when there are different types of people around you." I encourage them to code-switch when others walk into the room, but when I'm around and they think it would add meaning, go for it. I got your back, you guys got mine. "Don't snitch on me, I won't snitch on you. Can we agree on this?" Twenty nods of excitement. This is how I establish trust.

I go back to explaining why I quit investment banking, because they just can't get over it. As I talk about my desire to help others and not forget where I come from, a young woman raises her hand and drops this bomb, "Yeah Mista, you right. We need to step up and help ourselves. This black culture be killin' us. No black people that make it big be helping the hood as much as white people help themselves. Shit, white people be helping us and we be pissin' it away. Why is Bill Gates in Africa, how come we not???"

Holy shit. As crazy as that comment sounded, it actually sparked some motivation in the class. Obviously, I had to address we couldn't generalize like that, but I'm not sure how seriously they took me. I mean, regarding black culture they're probably not going to take a brown guy's word over their own. I did bring up some well-known African-American philanthropists, but it was interesting to note that many of the famous "gangsta-rappers" that my students are obsessed with weren't on that list (a student pointed this out). As the conversation unfolded, another student brought up a very good point, "That's the problem yo, we just play ball or rap. It's hard to make it. And in da end, even if you make it, you still owned by someone. And when you're not good, you're trash. If you don't make it big, then you're a waste. That's why I came to this school, to be different." Well, it's not math, but hey, at least we're talking the truth.

I didn't really think I could get comments out like these on day one, but it happened. With the students at my previous school, it took another day or two to get almost everyone to participate. My students this year are slightly younger, so while they might be louder and behavior-management might be tougher, changing their ways and their future might be easier. We'll see.