Irene MacKay is suited perfectly to her job. "I like kids and I like math," she says simply.
Twenty-five years ago she found a career that was the just-right blend of both. MacKay became a high school math teacher. In intervening years, she has taught everything from beginning algebra to AP calculus at East High School with a dedication to excellence that has earned her the respect of students and parents alike.In April, her classroom efforts were recognized when the Utah Congress of Parents and Teachers named her the state's outstanding secondary teacher.
"Mrs. MacKay took my son who barely qualified for algebra and made him confident about his math ability. This student now has an engineering scholarship at the University of Utah," one parent wrote when nominating MacKay for the award.
The comment goes to the heart of MacKay's philosophy about quality teaching. She wants every one of her 150 students to be proficient in math skills because math is the foundation of so many professions. She thinks that it can be done by giving them challenging assignments while, at the same time, ensuring that they understand each principle.
And she doesn't think a teacher has to interject extras to make math fun.
"I think math is fun on its own. When students understand math, they like it. When they don't understand it, they don't like it. If they know how to do it, there isn't anything they don't like about it."
Her reward for long hours in the classroom and in preparation comes when watching the budding mathematicians blossom as they master a subject. And she worries about how each is doing along the way. "They really have no idea about how much I worry about them when they're taking a test. They think I'm sitting here gloating about how hard I made the test. I'm not," she said.
Her teaching methods also include letting the students learn from each other. But this teaching technique ran afoul of Utah's tight education dollar for years. For more than a decade, MacKay asked to have marker boards installed around her room so every student could participate at the board. There was never enough money until two months ago.
"Now every one of my kids can be at the board at once," she said.
This year she also finally received a computer that has shortened the hours necessary in preparing grades for her weekly posting.
Besides more money for equipment, MacKay has other ideas for an ideal educational system "as viewed from my tiny corner of the world."
Class time would never be sacrificed to student activities. Saying she realizes the important role that social development plays in education, the math teacher would nevertheless like to instruct free of intrusions by activities. "You can see the panic in a student's eyes when he has been out of class for two or three days and is behind in his work."
Like most teachers, MacKay would also prefer smaller classes. She has 19 in her AP calculus class but 35 in beginning algebra. "If you have more than 27, you have the feeling that you're not on top of what everyone is doing. I have 35 chairs in this room, and I don't want to put any more in." Angie Hutchinson