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First-Generation Students

High Expectations, Caring Teachers, and Hard Work

Nancy Leveille, Assistant Professor
College of Sciences & Technology

       In the fifth grade I had a really fun, exciting, and challenging mathematics year. We seemed to always be doing problems - all kinds of problems. Every problem seemed different and interesting. The teacher loved mathematics and it showed. We often had competitions to see who could solve a problem and explain how they reached their answer. From my fifth grade teacher, I learned to be patient with students who are not quick with answers to mathematics questions, I learned to listen to others, and I learned to wait my turn. I learned a great deal more as well. I learned to love mathematics, and that year I decided to become a mathematics teacher.

       I changed schools multiple times during my elementary years. Always able to catch up and keep up in mathematics, after that fifth grade year I always felt something was missing from my English preparation. I do not know what is lacking because if I did, I would work on learning it. Fortunately for me, I was academically successful because I was always motivated and hard-working. While I have always assumed that these are natural characteristics for me, upon reflection I can see these values were nurtured by all members of my family. Throughout my childhood, I observed various members of my family constantly striving for excellence. I grew up in a hard-working, lower middle-class family that had fairly recently arrived in New England. Members of mother's side of the family had immigrated to Fall River, Massachusetts from the Canadian province of Quebec in the late 1800s and early 1900s. My father's side of the family emigrated from Poland to escape World War I. A positive attitude towards education was often expressed along with the regret by the family member that their education was cut short by the need to help support the family. Family stories about the previous generation growing up included the hard times during the Great Depression and World War II. I was fortunate to be an only child so the Aunt and Uncle who brought me up since the sixth grade were able to afford to send me to a local college – I applied for government loans and repaid them within a few years after graduation.

       For my undergraduate degree, I majored in mathematics. Coming from a small school with a graduating class of about 80, I struggled my freshman year in most of my courses. The adjustment of going from a sheltered life to the demands of a mathematics major's academically challenging courses was slow and difficult. The low grade in mathematics my first semester was unusual for me and therefore devastating.  I was stunned to find out at the end of the first semester that many of my Calculus I classmates had taken some introduction to calculus, or at least pre-calculus, in their senior year of high school. Some even had used the same textbook and had the answers all worked out. They just had to review and improve their calculating skills. In comparison, I was learning many new and strange concepts. Very few of my high school classmates had gone on to college. It took me a while to adapt to college level courses and the thousands of students with whom I was competing. I came to know what it is like to feel dumb and inadequately prepared and I certainly know how it feels to be lost and struggling. I therefore try to show my students how they can overcome deficiencies in their academic preparations.
Doing mathematics well takes practice. In college, I was able to develop my proficiency by completing all the daily homework, dutifully following the announced college guideline of at least two hours of homework for every class-hour, and then spending at least ten hours studying for any regular test. While I was a full time student living at home and commuting a short distance to college, I had only to work summer jobs and was a traditional full-time student during the long spring and fall semesters.

       A good work ethic helped me advance through the required and elective coursework to obtain my Bachelor of Arts degree. In undergraduate school I had minors in secondary education and natural science. I earned my teaching certification in Secondary-Mathematics. After college I accepted a teaching position at a school in my neighborhood. I left after one year to attend graduate school and became a full-time student again. I married while in graduate school. In those early days of my marriage, I learned to balance obligations to school, work, and family. After I earned a Master of Arts in Mathematics, I left my part-time community college teaching and math lab positions to teach at a local college.

       Two years later I left the United States to live in London, England when my spouse accepted a Post-doctoral position. His field is very competitive and so we decided that his job offers would take priority. Economic considerations also favored that decision. Anyways, before we were married, I had agreed to move wherever my husband's job took us. I kept my word. I have always been able to find employment wherever we moved because of my strong mathematics background. I have enjoyed the moves and at each new location our life improved.
After obtaining a Master of Arts degree, we moved about every two years so a doctorate was not possible for me. Besides the short time frames in the various locations, there was the problem of not finding a doctoral program that interested me. My two-year master's degree had concentrations in Algebra and Logic. The doctoral programs I visited did not seem to have any connection between either Algebra or Logic and the real world in which I was interested. I am better at tinkering with things to improve them rather than imagining something completely new as do those researchers with purely theoretical interests. I enjoy being an experimentalist in practical rather than abstract situations.

       Many years passed before an interest in an education doctorate developed, mostly at the urging of some colleagues and friends. After my daughter was old enough to stay home alone after I brought her home from school and before her father arrived home from work, I pursued my doctoral program of studies at UH. It took me about ten years, part-time because of my fulltime teaching at UHD, but I completed my doctorate in December 2005.
The priorities, the focus, and the purpose of the mathematics teacher I envisioned in the fifth grade have not changed. Every student is my individual priority. I focus on creating a positive experience for each student in my class. My purpose is to bring each one from wherever their mathematical knowledge is when they arrive in my class to what it needs to be when they finish the course.

       You are most welcome to visit me in S748 where I enjoy learning mathematics for the fun of learning and am always on the lookout for ways and places to use the mathematics I know.


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Last updated or reviewed on 9/13/10

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