"Calculus isn't always easy, but when you feel like you're safe and it's a place where you're going to be supported, you can do anything," Laura Potter says.
That teaching philosophy, she said, applies not only to AP Calculus, but also to her Ramp-Up To Algebra classes and other math courses.
"That's a good starting point: Do you feel safe? Do you feel like you're valued? And, if so, then we can work with that," she said.
Potter, 36, knew she wanted to be a teacher as early as second grade, when her "memory book" said her favorite classes were math and her goal was to teach.
Three years into her tenure at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, the Perry Hall native was crowned Harford County Public Schools' Teacher of the Year for her achievements in the school's math department. Potter, who lives down the road from her school, became chairperson of the department this year.
On the first day back from spring break, Potter was trying to jog her students' memories about slope fields – graphs plotting solutions to differential equations – and Euler's method for solving differentials.
"I think that sometimes when we're out of school for quite some time, it's good to do a quick review of all the things we've learned so far," Potter told the class. "So what I'd like for you to do is take three minutes with your 'color group' and come up with a two- to three-sentence explanation for slope fields and a two- to three-sentence explanation for Euler's method, and I'm going to ask each group to share with the class."
Around her room, posters and displays encourage confidence and perseverance in math, as well as Potter's values and standards for her students.
"It's okay to not know, but it's not okay to not try," a poster on the overhead projector read. Students could "draw straws" for their names from a tongue-in-cheek cup labeled "Don't be a 'third derivative,'" referring to a calculus term also known as a "jerk."
Potter's serious approach to her subject was tempered with small bursts of fun. A cuckoo sound went off when time was up for students to complete a problem. The class could also get stickers for correct work, leading students to compete for stickers to decorate their graphing calculators, Potter noted.
To her, all the fun has a purpose. While rewarding high school students with stickers may seem silly or childish, "it gives them an opportunity to connect what they're doing with an experience," Potter explained after class.
"I can say, 'Remember the day that we were up at the chalkboard and you were doing these problems?' or 'Remember when we had all those words on the board in the back and you helped sort them or put them in order?' If I can get them to draw back on things we've already learned, the chances of them being successful are astronomically higher," she said.
C. Milton Wright threw Potter a surprise celebration the day she returned from the Teacher of the Year banquet, held March 25. Her family kept her tied up in the morning so she would be late to school; when she got there, a big banner over the door congratulated her on the award and the whole school was standing on the stairwell, Principal Mike Thatcher said.
Potter was also given a gourmet breakfast and lunch, along with lilies.
"We know how hard she is going to work this next year," Thatcher, who joined the school this year after leading the Center for Educational Opportunity, said about Potter's responsibilities as the county's top teacher and contender for the state crown.
"She will be doing a lot of appearances and advocating for the teachers of Harford County," he said.
Thatcher noted Potter's "very unassuming" manner and that her students nominated her on their own.
"She is an outstanding teacher, knows her content area very, very well," he said. Although it is common for a teacher to be a "people person," he said, "she works equally well with staff as she does with students."
Thatcher said her Ramp-Up To Algebra students are given as much attention as any others.
"Those kids feel just as much [of] mathematicians as the kids in her calculus class," he said.
'I love my job'
Finding ways to make learning work has long been a mission for Potter. After a year at Perry Hall High School, she went to Baltimore's Institute of Notre Dame, where she took many math courses, but thought she wanted to teach biology.
When she graduated high school, Potter intended to major in biology at Notre Dame of Maryland University until she hit the challenge of organic chemistry.
"I really loved my math classes that I was in, so I chose to change my major to math," she said. "I'm really happy that I did, because math always came easy for me growing up, and I always would help my brother and my stepsister with their math homework."
"I think I always wanted to be a teacher and I don't know why," Potter said. "I enjoy helping people. One of my other career choices when I was little was a veterinarian."
After getting a bachelor's degree in mathematics with a minor in physics, Potter took an internship in the actuarial department of Carefirst at Blue Cross Blue Shield, where she realized she did not want a desk job.
She got involved with a Baltimore County program granting her a master's degree from Towson University and taught at Dundalk Middle School.
"We moved up to Harford County in 2002, so we've been here for quite some time," Potter said, explaining the commute to Baltimore County became tiring and she wanted to spend more time with her husband, Tim, and three children, Finley, Spencer and Lily. Finley is in ninth grade at C. Milton Wright.
"I love my job," she said.
Besides her role at C. Milton Wright, Potter is also in her second year as chairperson of religious education at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County.
"As a mom, you are a teacher. You are a teacher every day," she noted. "I am a better mom because I am a teacher and I am a better teacher because I am a mom."
In her speech at the Teacher of the Year banquet, Potter spoke about her realization that she is teaching other people's children and the challenge of meeting children's highly specific needs.
She believes her honesty and sense of structure puts students in a position to learn.
"I'm real about what's going on in the classroom. I lay out what my expectations are, and, not that I really have to use a lot of consequences, but they know that if they don't follow the expectations, there are things that could potentially happen," Potter said.
"I think kids of all ages and all ability levels really appreciate teachers who are honest and who are organized and can kind of keep a routine in place for them," she said.
One of the strongest aspects of her Ramp-Up class is its organization, she said.
"Those kids will do amazing, wonderful things, but it's all because they come into class feeling safe and they know I'm going to be honest with them and if they need help, I'm going to help them," she said.
Potter has focused much more on group work, which she said is not just about forcing students to sit together and work in tandem.
At the end of the year, for example, Potter has students write letters to next year's class.
"They will mention that one of the things they really like is that I change their seats every unit. And they'll say, 'In some of my classes, I haven't changed my seat all year, but I really get to know all the people in my class [with Potter],'" she said. "I think that's also important, for them to have that camaraderie with one another and really feel like we're all in this together."
"Even higher level kids, they need direct expectations and direct guidelines for what it means to learn in a group," she added. "I've really changed my instruction to incorporate that into my lesson."
Think like a mathematician
Despite the differences in ability levels, her Ramp-Up students do many of the same things as calculus ones, she said.
"We have a little cup with their names on it and, just like you see in my calculus class, they pick out the names and they call on students as we're going over different problems," Potter said.
"I use pinch cards a lot with the Ramp-Up class for multiple choice questions, so they can pinch A, B, C or D, but then we also do a lot of, does this answer make sense or is this person's work correct, and they will pinch yes or no," she explained. "That's something that is pretty non-threatening for them but it gives them immediate feedback and it also gets them to think a little bit more deeply about the mathematics."
"If you can identify the source of someone's error or if you can identify that that answer doesn't look reasonable, you're already one step ahead of just being able to find the answer," she said.
Potter said her main goal is to make sure when students leave her class, they are able to be good mathematicians.
"It means you know how to work with other people, you know how to persevere through a task and not give up, you know when it's appropriate to use a number line versus a calculator versus counting chips. You know whether or not your answer makes sense. You see when you're kind of using that repeated reasoning over and over again, well, wow, maybe I can come up with a shortcut that I can then use later down the road so I'm not doing the same tedious process and I can become more efficient," she explained.
Those skills go far beyond the world of math and even school, Potter pointed out.
"I think if we can teach kids how to think like mathematicians and to think logically and to really think critically and deeply about what they're doing, that will affect their achievement in a variety of places, not just in the math classroom," she said.