Two of the most important roles in Kate McCann’s life—high school math teacher and mom—recently came together as she helped her seventh-grade daughter solidify her skills in, uh, a certain subject. Some extra work in the evenings helped her turn the corner, and McCann ’96 G’98 was gratified to hear her daughter say on the way to school one morning in May, “You know, mom, the more I understand, the more fun it gets.”
Helping her students at U-32 High School in East Montpelier reach that magical turning point is what it’s all about for the 2017 Vermont Teacher of the Year. “It’s true for everyone,” she says. “We have a lot more fun when we see progress. It takes practice, but students have to truly believe that they can work harder and turn those corners. I think that’s one of our biggest challenges in the classroom right now.”
Before she was a teacher herself, or was even considering becoming one, McCann learned how a good math teacher instills confidence from Ken Golden, UVM professor of mathematics who retired in 2016. McCann remembers being deeply challenged by the exams in his high-level math courses, but she soldiered on, “showed her work,” as they say.
Regardless of whether her answers were correct, Golden praised the thoroughness and insight he detected. “This is really great. You’re a superb math student,” was Golden’s overriding message. “What do you mean? I didn’t get any mathematical answer right,” McCann recalls thinking.
“Now, what I take with me into my teaching is there is more than one way to get a right answer—it is about the process, not the product. Sometimes it takes pulling that kid aside, finding a special time, sitting down and looking at things together to really draw out what a student knows and can do.”
As a UVM senior, McCann put a couple of openings in her class schedule to use in exploring education courses, which would provide the spark of her evolution from math major to math teacher. Lia Cravedi, senior lecturer in the College of Education and Social Services, placed McCann into field experience at Burlington High School. Coupled with later experience via AmeriCorps, McCann knew she’d found her calling. “I knew at that point that I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to make connections with young people and really try to help them realize their potential.”
McCann is dedicated to pushing herself to continually learn and improves as a teacher. That means achieving national board certification, videotaping her class, writing reflections about her teaching, serving on the board of the Vermont Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “I’m always looking for the next thing,” she says. That next thing included a #observeme social media campaign that invited fellow teachers to attend one of her classes and offer critique. “It’s scary,” McCann admits. “Scary to ask for that feedback and not know what I’m going to get in return.”
Scary, but no more so than what her students face when confronted with this thing called algebra, and being able to relate as a learner ultimately makes her a better teacher. “That’s what feeds me. How do I reach more kids? How do I make the biggest difference and impact on their lives in the short time that I have with them?” McCann says.
In April, she traveled to the White House to be honored together with the other top teachers from states across the nation. Media coverage noted that many of the honorees felt slighted by President Trump, who did not give the ceremony the attention of recent presidents. McCann concurs that it was an odd encounter in many ways. But she also found affirmation in her fellow dedicated teachers at the White House and a visit with Sen. Patrick Leahy in his office. “I love that man, love our state, love my profession, love my students,” she says.