Olivia De Souza Carneiro ’24 interviewed High School Math Teacher Deborah Tompkins, who started at TASIS in 2018 and currently teaches IB Mathematics: Analysis and Approaches Standard Level and Honors Precalculus.
Can you please describe your educational and professional background?
Well, I thought I wanted to be an electrical engineer for my first few years of college, but I changed my mind and ended up completing my Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and Physics—a double major. I then spent a year working for the United States Department of Defense. I worked for the Navy as a physicist, which turned out to not be the job for me at all. So then I decided to try teaching and got a job at a boarding school in New Hampshire. I taught there for three years and learned that I really like teaching. Then I wanted to get more education, so I got my master's degree in Mathematics and started teaching at the college level in Oregon. I went on to teach at a private high school in Pennsylvania and at both a university and private high school in Indiana before having the opportunity to come to TASIS in the fall of 2018.
How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
I would say my philosophy is to make sure that the students are involved. My goal is to not just lecture all the time but to have the students think and process and be involved in the lesson. So I think you would say that my teaching is student-centered. At the same time, I think it's important to set high standards and expect the students to give their best and not just to sit back and think everything will be handed to them. They have to take responsibility in the learning process and be involved in the lessons.
Since IB Math is a two-year program, you often work with the same group of students for two whole years. Are you ever surprised by the amount of progress they can make in this time?
It is true that when they start, a lot of students are hesitant. It tends to be a common thing for students to be a bit anxious about math. Despite this, I can usually see each student’s potential from the beginning, so I’m never really shocked when they end up exceeding their own expectations.
It is interesting to look back together with the students when they're near the end of their second year and take note of all the work we've done over the two years. We’ll look at the first couple of units we did in year one, and I'll point out, “Look how easy this is for you now,” and they'll be really impressed with how much progress they’ve made. I think that's really fun. I am proud of the progress a lot of my students make for sure. My students work really hard and are very successful. I'm very proud of them, and I'm very happy to have been a part of that.
The IB Diploma Program is very demanding. I tell my students that I am so impressed they want to do it and that they can keep up with it. Even though it's so rigorous and sometimes they don't think they can keep going, they always do. They keep persevering, and I sympathize with them a lot throughout the process—knowing that they also have to keep up with five other IB classes over the course of the two years. I do feel like I am a part of their success in the end, and I feel good about that.
Why do you think that many students have anxiety toward math? (I would say this is something I’ve personally experienced.)
I think there are a lot of possible reasons, and I’m sure it varies for different people. I think one significant reason is that many years ago, it was considered okay for girls to not be good at math, but boys were supposed to be good at it. And then you're in elementary school and your teacher is most likely a woman. So you're being taught math by a woman who already might feel that it's okay to not be good at math, and maybe she herself isn't very good at math (or at least has this concept of herself). So I think the world got into this cycle in which a woman was standing in front of a class teaching math but didn’t feel very confident about it. So she's kind of suggesting to her female students, perhaps inadvertently, that it's okay if you don't get this because it's really hard. But you boys better get it because you're supposed to be good at this.
I think that's part of it. Obviously, that's not the case across the board because some countries may not see as much gender bias. I do think there is a social acceptance that it's okay to be “bad” at math. For example, would you ever hear someone say, “Oh, I'm terrible at reading”? No one at a party would say that they’re a horrible reader. But for some reason it’s acceptable to say, “Oh, I’m terrible at math. It’s so hard; I don't like it.” I think it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I think that math taps into a different part of your brain and that there are definitely different ways to teach it. I feel like I'm a very visual person, and I draw upon a lot of visual techniques when I teach math. I read a study once that said most math teachers are not visual and yet most learners are visual. So there's that disconnect as well. The student might be more successful if the material were presented in a visual manner, but the math teacher is often working in an abstract, computational manner.
The key is to have persistence. Math is not going to come easily to everyone. Some students think they have to get it right the first time they touch pencil to paper. But the whole idea of math is that you learn how to work through problems, and if your first attempt doesn’t go well, you have to be flexible enough to try a new direction. It's okay to make mistakes. That's how you develop problem-solving techniques.
Why do you think STEM education is so important in today's world?
I've always thought that math is important because it is a part of so many different careers. Even if someone wants to be a psychologist, for example, there are still statistics involved. And it's incredible to me how quickly the world of technology is evolving and how many jobs it has the potential to eliminate—millions of checkout clerks at stores, for example, as automated self-checkout systems become more prevalent.
I think it’s important for the world to acknowledge that not only do people need to have a source of income to live, but it's also quite important for a person's self worth to feel like they're doing something meaningful with their life. It’s critical that we make STEM education accessible to everyone so that they are prepared for the jobs of the future, which will increasingly demand the ability to use math and science.
What do you like the most about teaching at TASIS specifically?
I really like being involved in the whole community. I’m the head of the Del Sole dorm, and I really like having my home on campus. I like being involved with the students in different aspects—not only in the classroom but also in the dorm. At TASIS I get to know many different students from many different countries. It's incredible to me that so many nationalities are represented here.
The students here amaze me with their ability to learn in a language that is not their primary language. I'm really trying to learn Italian now, but it's very difficult for me. This struggle has given me even more admiration for the students here. They can learn in a language that is not native to them, and many of them even speak three or four other languages. That's incredible to me. I really enjoy being exposed to all the different cultures and getting to know students from so many different places.