An Open Thank You Letter to My Students

An Open Thank You Letter to My Students

Dear Liminions, Moganlims, Mon/Wed, Tue/Thu Math II and Stats sections; classes of 2018, 2019, and 2021.

Mr. Lim here, or Michael, as I told a bunch of you to start calling me after the last day of school. (which some did and some found uncomfortable—your call!)

There's an ancient Zen saying attributed to the Buddha (probably inaccurately), but I like it anyway:

"When the student is ready, the teacher will appear"

You might think I'm bringing this up because I was a new teacher "appearing" in your lives. However, I find myself framing this the other way around; I was very much your student—learning, absorbing, soaking up the 10th and 12th grade perspective.

I'm not sure I was ready for ~200 teenage teachers to appear in my life, but you did anyway. With your teenage curiosity, with your teenage angst, with your teenage wisdom.

First things first, I miss you all a lot.

It took me a long time to stitch this quilt of learnings and feelings together. I haven't even opened my yearbook (or all those Starbucks gift cards) to read your notes. Ok; that's not JUST because I don’t drink coffee. Was probably procrastinating the admission that our time is truly over; coming to terms that we’ll never get to laugh about me trying to parkour vault a desk and falling on my face again. Well, I guess we could it, would just be less convenient.

How it all began:

2 weeks before my first day, Mr. Miller, Summit’s Math Director (some of you had him as freshmen!), had us write a "Mathifesto"—a vision for our classroom. Found it in an old Google doc, so here it is for chuckles.

Mr. Lim's Mathifesto:

Students traditionally cast math off as siloed procedures to be avoided, or the marginally better alternative: memorized. Not in my room. In Room ???, students will examine, hypothesize about, and model both the world they live in and themselves.

Concepts will be approached with agency and abundance.

Agency: learning is student-motivated, and teacher-facilitated. I'm the airplane steward, not a pilot.

Abundance: learning is not a zero-sum game. We have a wealth of opportunities to fail, question, and pivot. Asking questions and making mistakes will be celebrated, not penalized.

I will bring joy and energy to the classroom, and hold students to a similar expectation. On bad days, I will hold them to be self-aware, to stay with emotions, and to center.

There's a saying from some fancy historical document that "We hold these truths to be self-evident”. I throw two middle fingers up at that saying.

I don't think any truth in my classroom should be taken as self-evident. Students should pick rules and routines apart, discard what does not serve us and perpetuate what does.

Math is a tool, a measuring stick, and a weapon, a way to look at the world, see the gap between where it stands now and where we want it to be, and to methodically close that gap.

I had this definitive Mathifesto, clearly laid out lesson plans, classroom guidelines, meticulous followup questions... and then reality happened.

I remember standing at the door nervously as you all filed in on my first day. We threw Velcro at Nathaniel to simulate a normal distribution, which quickly devolved into a Velcro war. Daniel shouted random nonsense from the corner but also very sweetly helped shush everyone. Cole was too cool to take off his headphones and listen to me 😎. I THINK Canaan actually showed up that day (?).

The following months were sprinkled with so many more memorable moments

-Class Points: which were SO impossible to keep track of, and I kept just letting you demand I give you points in the name of self-advocacy, but actually I think I was just being bullied. Anyway, my point system went egregiously overboard— I gave away so much extra credit, so many test cheat sheets, and ended up cooking up a banquet of gourmet pulled pork street tacos for my Tuesday/Thursday section

-Logic riddles like this one:

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-AND the "albatross" sandwich riddle that kept about 25 of you guessing for about 3 months.

-Sneaking Maggie to school and having to hide her from Ms. Petrash

By far, what I take away most from the teaching experience is what I learned from you all.

I find they run along this spectrum of conceptual utility:

Here's a selection of my favorite:

Embrace trolls.

I created weekly surveys with the naming convention "" to collect feedback from my kids. Someone got clever and got ahead of me there; see for yourself

  • Exhibit A:
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The lesson here is that disruptions to your process, jokesters, and haters are to be expected, and framed as extra opportunities to laugh at yourself.

Typos matter, and you can't always outsource checking for them.

I.e."It's time to eat Grandma!" vs "It's time to eat, Grandma!", yadda yadda. A numerical blunder printed on 30 midterms is no bueno, for the environment, and for your students. TA's are SOMETIMES available, but I had to start relying on a 3-step routine:

  1. Scanning for spelling
  2. Scanning for punctuation
  3. Scanning for format

Fun-sized candies and handwritten post-it notes of encouragement are an incredible way to brighten someone's day and build relationship capital. We tend to think this only works with toddlers, but trust me, the technique ages well.

If someone didn't follow your instructions properly, chances are your instructions could have been clearer. It's easy to assume everybody knows what we want of them until you actually ASK that person a "check for understanding" and tell it back verbally. On the receiving end? Check YOURSELF for understanding. Repeat back a task to clarify before you invest time and resources.

Just do it. On your feet.

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  • Corollary A: Do-ocracy is a philosophy that means if you have an idea that is untested but reversible, you should just try. Don't ask "how would you like it if we played a review game that combined "taboo" with math vocabulary?", just show up with the printed cards, and if it crashes and burns, don't do it the next day.
  • Corollary B: Brainstorming works 50x better ON YOUR FEET. The energy in a room went up 10x anytime we stood up and whiteboard out ideas.

Winging it works to a point.

One time, I took improvisation too far and LITERALLY winged it (we were talking proportions, someone mentioned Wingstop, so I spent half an hour diving into an example of wing per $$$ ratios on different orders). Enraptured by my genius, I glanced around... at a bunch of drooling/confused/frustrated faces, and someone asked "can we get back to the lesson?"

And finally, teenagers are some of the most inspiring human beings on the planet.

Your POV stands at the cusp of a grand adventure, in an open landscape of possibilities fueled by humor and spirit and youth, uninhibited by all the inner walls that the pragmatism of adulthood will someday mount.

You're so in touch with your community. You're so adamant about spending quality time with your loved ones and not on random assignments people have demanded you complete ( a resistance that fades away in some of us).

And most of all, you're asking all these incredible questions that I still do: "how will I make time for the passions and people that sustain me? How will my relationship with my birth family evolve as I enter adulthood? What makes a "good" career?"

Y'all know firsthand how long I can ramble, so I'm leaving the rest of the "life lessons" for another time, they're juicy enough to warrant their own piece.

For the current seniors, good luck with those UC Essays 😉

With Love and Thanks,