A teacher's work is never done, we are told. But where do our favorite teachers come from, and when does their work really begin? For Dr. Amy Shell, Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the United States Military Academy (USMA), it began when she was just a child. Dr. Shell was talented with numbers early on and believed that anything was possible in her future. She took what most would call a setback and turned it into an amazing career for herself. Dr. Shell is where she is today because when she was growing up, no one ever told her that she could not be successful.
Her dreams began to form as she grew older and her earliest recollection of an ideal profession is that of a scientist—she wanted to know how things worked. A teacher first shaped her future career. Her elementary school principal noticed that she was very quick to pick up numbers, but she had a difficult time with reading and writing. She drifted further behind her classmates and soon after, Dr. Shell was labeled as a slow learner. At the end of the first grade, her principal and teachers decided to hold her back for one year, and she immediately began working hard to catch up to her classmates. Through her studies with special teachers, Dr. Shell adapted well and, unknowingly, began to develop her own method of learning to read. By the time she was in fourth grade, Dr. Shell had not only caught up to her peers but also learned that she enjoyed math and sciences.
When it came time for undergraduate studies, Dr. Shell chose the University of Michigan. She studied physics until her junior year, when she began having trouble with the course material. It made her realize that she no longer enjoyed what she was learning. She began talking about the problems that she faced with a female lecturer with whom she had a good relationship. In one innocent conversation, her lecturer became the second teacher to shape Dr. Shell's career. At one point, her lecturer suggested that Dr. Shell was a natural teacher and encouraged her to consider education as a career choice. When Dr. Shell questioned this idea she was asked, "Well what subject are your best grades in?" Dr. Shell knew the answer was math and saw a new door opening in her career. She soon changed her major and eventually graduated with a degree in math and physics education. Her choices are admirable because when she realized she did not like where her future was going, she had the courage to do something about it.
As a young graduate, Dr. Shell plunged into the public school system. She taught for several years to gain experience and learn the ropes of her new profession. "It helped build my confidence," she responded, when asked why she decided to take a break between undergraduate and graduate school. She wanted to take things slowly and enjoy learning all that she could along the way. When she felt she was ready for a new challenge, Dr. Shell turned to Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. There she earned a master's degree, and Oakland invited her to come on staff as a lecturer in the math department. Her career took flight, and Dr. Shell had finally reached her goal—she was able to teach and share math with others.
She continued teaching for a few more years while taking part time classes toward a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. Doubts still crept up on her at times, but she overcame those feelings by telling herself, "I am smart enough to do this." She took a break to teach some more so that she could build up her confidence again, gain some more experience, and enjoy teaching simply because she loved it. It was then while teaching at Oakland that Dr. Shell developed a unique interest in the history of calculus. Not only did she enjoy working in math, the scientist in her was also interested in where and how math originated.
When Dr. Shell decided she that she wanted to pursue her ideas on the history of calculus, she began looking for a graduate program suited to her interests. She was divorced at about the same time and no longer had anything tying her to Oakland. As her studies became more specific she was free to transfer to the University of Illinois at Chicago in order to finish her degree. A couple of years later she completed her education with a D.A. in math history.
Throughout her career, Dr. Shell has been faced with conflicts and challenges of all kinds. Of course there were times when she was scared or doubtful, but what makes her special is that she never stopped believing that she could do anything she set her mind to do. When she had doubts about her ability, she stamped them out by pushing harder. Dr. Shell never used her learning disability as an excuse to expect less. She encourages young women in math to seek their goals ambitiously and not to worry about sacrificing their careers for their future families. Dr. Shell says, "You have to live full and complete lives in order to contribute to a loving family." She teaches young women that they are fully capable of succeeding in math, science, or any other field they choose.
Dr. Shell also emphasizes that she still faces challenges today. Because she teaches a highly structured class schedule at USMA, Dr. Shell must do her individual research on the weekends. When she gets frustrated, she remembers the advice of one of her close friends. He says, "Amazing experiences are not always amazing while you are having them." Dr. Shell certainly agrees, but she loves the exciting career that she has carved for herself. It is not her style to back down from a challenge and she hopes that students understand how important it is to overcome such obstacles that stand between students and their goals.
For young students seeking careers in math and science, Dr. Shell encourages them to get involved early on. To get as much experience as possible, they should join clubs, find a mentor, or participate in math competitions. Dr. Shell states enthusiastically, "A student can learn more about math in one weekend of intense group work on a project than in an entire semester of classes!" She wants young people to realize that math can be fun and very rewarding for those willing to work at it. No matter what a young person's goals are, Dr. Shell encourages them never to doubt their potential or give up on their dream.
It takes one good teacher to make another, and Dr. Shell's case is a perfect example. The caring teachers that she had growing up taught her how to teach others. Knowledge is a powerful tool--teach somebody and pass it along.
Note: I interviewed Dr. Shell to learn more about her career in West Point, NY on 18 October 2001. We discussed her childhood and how she discovered that she had dyslexia and then moved on to her educational background. We closed with her feelings on math as a career field and suggestions she had for students interested in math. All facts are dates came directly from the interview.
About the author: My name is Jeni McAnulty, and I am a cadet at the United States Military Academy (USMA). Academics and specifically math, have never been a real struggle for me. I do not think I pick it up as easily as Dr. Shell, so I make up the difference by working hard at math. I was never discouraged from trying because, like Dr. Shell, no one ever told me that I would not be able to succeed in math. From my experience at USMA, I know that a good teacher makes all of the difference. Math is math, but the way it is taught is what teaches students to love it, at least appreciate it, or dislike it.
Some essays have been modified for posting on the AWM web site.