"Interview with ACES Alumnus Dan Ristea" by JiaHuan Lin ('18)

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1. Why did you choose to become a math teacher? What inspires you?

I have always enjoyed problem-solving both theoretically and practically. In high school I took calculus, physics, and computer science classes, which helped me realize my aptitude for and interest in the sciences. At the same time I took wood shop, stained glass and clay classes, which surprised me in realizing my desire for hands-on learning experiences, and with that my interest in creating physical artifacts. Therefore, pursuing a major in mathematics felt right, and combining it with computer information systems felt natural.

Throughout my education, I received mentorship from my sister, who taught high school mathematics. She contributed the greatest to my education. So, the thought of becoming an educator has always been in my mind. Once admitted to St. Joseph’s College, the place where educators are made, I decided to join the secondary education program to gain the skills and knowledge that would help me connect with people to give back the guidance I once received.

Although I never taught mathematics beyond student teaching, I leveraged the experience I gained at St. Joseph’s to quickly learn and then teach classes such as robotics, mobile development, technology integration and entrepreneurship.

2.What do you like most about teaching as a career?

Teaching is a great way to give back. It’s also a great opportunity to reflect on the skills and knowledge that are important for success in today’s society, synthesize this knowledge and pass it on to students through appropriate learning experiences. I believe this is the most significant contribution we can leverage as educators to prepare students for advancing our society in the 21st Century.

3.What are the challenges or difficulties you’ve had to overcome as a teacher?

Public speaking was one of the first challenges I had to overcome. Standing in front of a full classroom of students looking to you for guidance can be terrifying at first. If you know the subject matter you won half the battle. The other half lies in being able to successfully pass on your knowledge to anyone who is willing to listen. Then, you can start thinking about classroom management and individualized instruction. When designing a lesson, you always need to think about the end goal and how you will be able to assess students’ understanding ideally through a real-world application. Having pursued the secondary education program at St. Joseph's, I got acclimated to the classroom environment and discovered ways in which I could improve my performance. These experiences prepared me for the interviews and demo lessons I gave to prospective employers in my senior year in college.

4.What are your teaching stratagems?

Having taught programming for almost five years, I am a strong believer in experiential learning and using technology to focus on other subject areas. I want students to find purpose in my classes. For K-4 classes I partnered with subject matter experts to design interdisciplinary courses, providing students with ample opportunity to take creative control of programming to better understand other subject areas. Last year I taught a game design class to third graders. In one lesson I asked them to use their programming skills to design a marine environment and then set up an equilibrium such that bigger predators like sharks won't go extinct. Throughout this experience the students used their knowledge about marine life to design the behavior of various game characters. We turned these behaviors into rules, which we then used to program the simulation.

For middle school students I developed robotics challenges. These activities focus on actualizing students' knowledge from discrete algebra and geometry to program robots that follow a static black line or a moving target.

At the high school level I introduced app development guiding students in designing apps that address community problems. When working with teams I realized that each student has strengths, passions and development opportunities. I believe this knowledge is critical both to deliver instruction successfully and to help students develop working environments that are academically, socially and emotionally safe and fulfilling.

5. If students don’t show interest in your class, how do you motivate them or spark their interest?

Classroom management techniques are important, but not as impactful as knowing what drives your students. Some students are passionate about math, others are passionate about English, Science, gaming or sports. Being aware of their passions helps me design classroom activities that lead to more successful and rewarding learning experiences for the entire class. I take into consideration the students’ proficiency level in the course material and the social dynamics of the class. These insights come in handy when pairing students in groups, setting them to task, and motivating them.

Once I know my students, I design activities that align with their interests and skill levels. Group activities are great, hands-on activities are also great, but in the end it comes down to what works for you and your group. Participation is key. Every student is different, every class is different and every school is different. It is important to understand that every student can make a valuable contribution to the lesson. Drawing them into the conversation at a level they are comfortable contributing is important in developing active contributors, who can then be engaged at more advanced levels.

6.How do you modify your teaching style if some students have difficulty with your class?

Whenever designing a lesson I include a variety of activities to facilitate transfer of knowledge. Five minute focus sessions rooted in direct instruction are great for capturing students’ attention and introducing new concepts. This is the time to provide clear instructions on the objective of the class, new material and the means to reach the goal/accomplish the tasks. I find that allowing students to explore the topic in groups or through hands-on experiences provides them with the social and/or kinesthetic perspective to delve into the subject first hand. Engaging students in reflection after each activity helps me understand what they learned, how they learned and how they can do it better. Once I set students to the task, I make sure to observe their behavior and change groups or provide adequate support as necessary. If the class has technology such as tablets or computers, I try to use software that captures student data. Today there are many apps that can provide educators with student data in real-time. That is key in understanding who needs support and why; it allows educators to take advantage of peer tutoring activities by pairing students who understand the concept with those who need help, which is beneficial for all parties.

7.What do you think the important quality for a teacher should be?

Adaptability. Make sure you keep up with your students and your field; stay on top of changing standards; constantly learn about new technology, which could make you more efficient and effective; think about what you want your students to take away from your class; and most importantly, be prepared to handle unforeseen situations.

8. Do you enjoy being a teacher? Do you have any advice for people who are thinking of becoming a teacher?

I feel rewarded from seeing students grow and feel responsible for their future. The more I delved into teaching, the more I understood the field, the stakeholders, the difficulties and my own aspirations. The challenge, opportunity and satisfaction I found in education lied in my own ability to grow academically, engage and equip students with the required knowledge to thrive in today’s society, and then see them grow. Education is an integral part of our development as a society and is the one thing that if approached correctly will solve many problems. As educators, we have the privilege to equip students with skills and mindsets that will allow them to thrive in a techno-mobile society, a society that has already given rise to a sharing economy and will continue to initiate other revolutionary social phenomena.

I have always wanted to understand things, take them apart, and put them back together in new ways, and teaching gave me that opportunity. I believe in working alongside other people. I believe students have immense potential, and with adequate instruction and mentorship, they can achieve anything they set their minds to.

I would advise new teachers to study their subject matter very well, observe their peers teaching, acquire knowledge of their students’ strengths, passions and interests, attend conferences, network with fellow teachers, not be afraid to take the less trailed path, and connect the subject matter to real-world problems. Ah yes, I almost forgot - a good night sleep goes a long way

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