Ms. Atchison is a math and science teacher at Marc Garneau.

Photo: Ava Pun

Q: What courses do you teach?

A: Many. I teach mainly Grade 9 and 10, math and science.

Q: How long have you been teaching at MGCI?

A: This is my sixth semester here at Marc Garneau. I have previously taught family studies and ESL.

Q: How would you describe your teaching style?

A: I really hope it’s inspirational, and caring for sure.

Q: What’s the one thing you like most about teaching the courses that you teach?

A: I’m naturally very curious, so I like teaching anything and I like learning new topics. One of my favourite things to teach is math because as a student I struggled with math. Now, as a teacher standing in front of a math class looking out and seeing the wrinkled foreheads and furrowed brows of misunderstanding—I can relate to that and I can explain it. Someone who always got straight A’s in math who becomes a math teacher wouldn’t know how it’s like to sit there in a math class and not understand at all, but I do know that. And so now I feel like, as a teacher, I am able to say, “Okay, I get that you may not understand this.” I may have explained something once and maybe 70% of the class got it. But I look for that other 30% and make sure that I’m bringing them along too.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to students who are struggling in math?

A: Ask for help. Actually, just this morning I was talking to my students about the idea of “magic numbers.” In my class, a magic number is any number that you don’t understand; it’s like it got there from magic. Don’t let magic numbers happen. Stop and ask, “Where did that 4 come from?” Because knowing that the answer to a specific question is 4 won’t help you on a test, but knowing how to get that 4—that’s what will help you. So, I always say let’s make sure that there are no magic numbers happening in math.

Q: What do you think is the most difficult thing about teaching?

A: Paperwork. It’s not my favourite. I would say the most difficult thing about teaching is that for every hour and fifteen minutes of teaching in class, there’s paperwork that goes on beyond that. Whether it’s photocopying materials, taking attendance, recording marks, or marking—there is a lot of paper still involved in teaching, and so keeping it all straight is a bit of a nightmare. I’m good at it, but I don’t like it.

Q: Do you think it would be better if the paperwork was all digitized?

A: I have some pretty strong feelings about that because every time we try to use technology in classrooms we have to expect failure. So, in order for a teacher to depend on technology in class, we basically have to plan two lessons. One assuming that the technology is going to work, and one assuming it doesn’t work. So I just don’t think that the reliability of the technology in every classroom is there, so as a teacher I can’t walk into a room and expect that the computer in that room is gonna work and not be from 1987 with six inches of dust on it. Or cables are missing, or a mouse is missing, or there’s no keyboard. There are still a lot of struggles in making sure that the room that you’re going to be teaching in has the materials that you want to be teaching with. And every semester, everyone’s rooms change, so you end up with different equipment in a different room.

Yes, technology might cut down on some of the paper, but I don’t think it can eliminate all of it yet. We also can’t overcome the equity issue of not every student having access to the same level of device. So if I’m expecting everyone in my class to have the latest iPad so I can run a specific app, then I better have a whole bunch of iPads to give out to everybody who doesn’t have one. But then how do those students feel versus those students who are sitting there with their own? We still have equity issues in terms of access to technology, and for that reason I’m still resistant because I think it’s important that every student can have access.

Q: Describe what your “perfect student” would be like.

A: I think the perfect student is a bit of a myth. We’re all human beings and we have good days and bad, and that’s one of my favourite things about teaching. Before I became a teacher I worked in an office and in law firms. But what I love about working with human beings is that we’re different every day. As human beings who have good days and bad, I think the best student just handles challenges better than others. The best students would ask for help more readily. They won’t sit there with a magic number, with no idea where it came from, and not ask for help. The best student would not let that go by—they’ll have their hand up and they’ll ask the question, or they’ll come see me after class. They’ll come and pester me at lunch and hunt me down. And then we can go over that math. The weaker students are going to wait until a test or a quiz before saying, “Wow, I don’t know how to do this question, can you help me?” And at that point, I’ll have to say, “No, I can’t.”

Q: So it’s that sense of initiative?

A: Initiative is big, and asking for help when you need it is the biggest thing. As human beings, it conflicts with our sense of pride. Our pride tells us that we should know this, and if we ask, everyone in the class will think we’re stupid. But the opposite is true, because when you ask a question in class, you hear ten sighs of relief from other people that want the answer to that question, but were too shy to ask it. So I think the best students ask for help, and they have that work ethic.

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

A: Camping, road tripping, reading, visiting friends and family, checking out local museums or art galleries when I’m travelling—those are all big ones for me.

Q: If you could travel to one place in the world right now, where would you go?

A: Right now, I’m currently on a mission to visit every province or territory in Canada before I go back to international travel. I only have Yukon, Nunavut, and Newfoundland left. I’m at ten out of thirteen!

Q: Do you have any hidden/special talents?

A: I really like working with my hands, and I like seeing the products of my efforts. I build, I sew, and I’m learning more about cars right now. My husband and I bought a house recently and the garage was just a disaster—it was neglected for years and years, things were slanted and falling down, it wasn’t built properly. So, what was there was all sagged or bowed or in really bad shape. Essentially we took it all apart and we rebuilt the garage. I also did a lot of stonemasonry, which I had never done much of before. Now I have a much better sense of masonry, which is super exciting. My last sewing project was when we were at Camp Pinecrest—Ms. Woods and I made a blanket. And, the last thing I did for my car was that I put the winter tires on by myself.

Q: Are you a cat person, a dog person, or neither? Why?

A: I’m a cat person. I have some allergies, and I have a cat that is ridiculously fluffy and princessy, but she is hypoallergenic. She’s a mix of two breeds, so there’s a lot less fur produced. She does not have that much hair, but the hair she does have is very long. You still notice it; in the house, she can make a dust bunny in a day. But she doesn’t trigger any of my allergies—whereas for dogs, I feel like the older I get, the more reactive I get to dogs. If one licks me, I’ll break out in hives. But it’s such a divisive thing—dogs or cats—but I think at the end of the day, we all acknowledge that coming home to a totally empty space sorta sucks. It’s a lot nicer knowing that at home there’s someone waiting for you, who’s happy to see you.