The Calculus of Saturday Morning Teaching

March 1, 2004 | CUNY Matters Columns

Last semester, I re-entered the classroom after an absence of some years, teaching calculus for three hours each Saturday to a group of about 20 students at Hunter College. I will not deny that I enjoyed returning to the classroom for my own sake: I love mathematics. The simple purity of elementary principles and their elegant applications are to me a profound intellectual joy.

I also took great pleasure in sharing this joy with my students; it is marvelous every time you see a student have a “eureka!” moment, when the light dawns and a formula or concept hits home.

But spending time with students also gave me an opportunity to reflect on the work I do each day as chancellor. Working at the Central Office understandably limits daily access to students; yet knowing what our students reflect on, aspire to, and dream about can only help us formulate future policy.

I was joined in my instructional efforts last semester by several CUNY college presidents and members of my Cabinet, each of whom taught a class on their own time. Executive Vice Chan-cellor for Academic Affairs Louise Mirrer taught writing to education students at Hunter. A lot of the policies she develops are related to students’ transitions from high school to college, so working with younger students–many of whom had just begun their journey toward secondary teaching careers–was an enlightening experience. Many times her students integrated personal experiences into their writing assignments, and through these essays she gained a unique perspective on their lives. I know Dr. Mirrer feels she gained an enriched understanding of what it means to be a CUNY student in New York City today.

When I compare my own classroom experience at City College to that of the students in my Hunter class, I can see they are worlds apart. I worked my way through college and was a commuter student, just as they are, but my responsibilities at the time were very different than the ones my students shoulder. I had no children; I wasn’t responsible for the care of a parent or a niece or nephew; and I did not have the burden of paying tuition along with my bills. The layers of complexity our students navigate now to go to college are quite challenging, often while their lives are complicated by immigration issues, language barriers, low income, or family situations.

I was also reminded of the wonderful diversity of CUNY students, both in background and preparation. My students came from all walks of life. They consistently defied expectation; some of my best students came from countries where English was not their first language or where traditional preparation for calculus was not available. Yet, through hard work and motivation, they excelled. This is the story of both CUNY and our great city.

CUNY’s administration is charged with guiding policy development that directly affects students in the classrooms. When we allocate resources and formulate policy direction, we must have a sense of where true need lies. While my teaching was unquestionably rewarding in its own right, so was the chance to see policies in action and their effect on students.

For example, I cannot emphasize enough the need for a working capital budget. Our students have no time to spare searching the halls for unbroken chairs or climbing several flights of stairs because of broken elevators. Seeing the frustrations of students firsthand has reinvigorated my desire to resolve the budget in a way that will bring services back to them. Considering how hard they work to be in the classroom, I think we need to work hard in City Hall, Albany, and Washington D.C. to bring them the facilities they deserve.

I also feel they deserve to be taught by dedicated, world-class faculty, and to that end we are implementing an ambitious hiring program for both senior and community colleges.

Helping students grasp basic concepts and their multitude of uses, furthering the learning process–that is what we do in the classroom. Some of my students embraced calculus; some were traumatized by it. Almost all of them weathered a challenging class well. While I know that the typical administrator’s duties do not allow time for teaching, I think all of us can benefit from a periodic return to the classroom for our own kind of learning experience. I have regained my Saturday mornings, but I don’t plan to lose the lessons that they taught me.