From the Heart: Powerful Stories from Passionate Educators
Mark Schommer, D.C. Everest Area School District, Wisconsin
Mark Schommer was planning to be an actuary, until a broken calculator changed his life.
Schommer was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. It was the day of his Calculus 2 final, and he was hurrying across campus to take the exam with a fellow math major, Josh.
Then Josh dropped his calculator, shattering it. Josh spiraled into a panic. He had programmed the machine with the formulas he would need for the test. Without those formulas, he would fail, because he didn’t understand the logic behind them.
“For the next three-quarters of a mile, I taught him everything I could possibly teach him,” Schommer recalls. Josh learned the concepts and passed the test. And Schommer realized he was really good at explaining math to people.
Schommer could no longer remember why he thought crunching numbers as an actuary would be right for him. From that point on, math was his path to a new career, as a teacher.
As he studied education and math, he became the go-to guy for other students in need of tutoring. He found he had a knack for explaining math in ways that made sense to people.
He remembered the adrenaline rush of teaching his friend Josh, who eagerly absorbed everything he said. When he became a teacher, he worked to create that engaged feeling in his classroom.
In 1997, on his very first day of his very first job as a geometry instructor in a Wisconsin high school, Schommer decided to sit at a desk, pretending to be a student waiting for the teacher to arrive. He wasn’t much older than his students and they didn’t know he was the teacher. “I thought it would be funny and it turned out it was,” he says.
He had a habit of roaming around the classroom as he taught, and once he almost fell into a sink. He also coached both boys’ and girls’ tennis. Students remembered the silly moments, and they got to know him as a coach. They paid attention and learned.
Now, Schommer teaches high school students in the D.C. Everest Area School District, in Weston, Wisconsin, and serves as math curriculum coordinator for the 6,000-student district. This academic year (2015-2016), the school district is transitioning to Techbook, a digital curriculum. Technology, says Schommer, can’t make a mediocre lesson sparkle. But it can make good lessons great, he says.
He’s helping teachers create inquiry-based lessons that teach underlying concepts, not just memorize formulas much as he taught Josh on the way to their calculus final.
Schommer is leading by example. In his trigonometry classes, he formed teams and gave each group a single instruction: find the height of the southeast corner of the school building. Students went outside, huddled together to brainstorm, tested ideas.
In his finance class, he asks students to imagine that it is 25 years in the future. They now have children of their own, and they are trying to figure out how to pay for college. Should they take out loans? Should they choose a less expensive institution? Students engage in the lesson because it is meaningful to them as they contemplate their own next steps.
Meanwhile, Schommer has never stopped tutoring. “As long as I can remember, as I’m cooking dinner or cleaning up, I’m helping people with math. Math is in everything,” he says. He can’t imagine life as an actuary. He’s grateful for the shattered calculator that showed him he could engage students by teaching the fundamental principles of math. And he’s grateful for the digital technology that helps students understand and use those fundamentals.
Mark Schommer uses Techbook for inquiry-based learning that engages and motivates students.
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