Joshua Sawyer

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Joshua Sawyer is a high school mathematics teacher at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, N.C. He is originally from Camden, N.C, and is a product of the North Carolina school system. In 2002, he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in Biostatistics and a minor in Jazz Studies. Since then, he has taught a range of courses including pre-algebra, geometry, advanced functions, and statistics. Because his occupation necessitates critical observation of students and the resources available to them on a consistent basis, he is able to provide insight into the educational and social experiences of students in his school. Sawyer describes his experiences teaching in a northeastern North Carolina high school, and he emphasizes the importance of using math as a tool to teach the greater lessons of communication and critical thinking. He seeks to first instill life values in his classroom, and hopes that mathematical skills will be attained in the process. This is clearly displayed in the essays his students wrote on “Math and Life Lessons”; they took mathematical suggestions and transformed them into real world advice. He strives to show his students that he cares about them, and this is evident through their affinity to confide in him. As a black teacher in a school that is nearly fifty percent black, he often recounts the experiences of black students in his narrative. This allows consideration of how the experience of Latino students compares or contrasts with that of African Americans as two of the prominent minority groups in our society.



Raymond Sawyer: This is Raymond Sawyer. The date is March 31, 2013. The time is 5:35 pm. We’re at the Mt. Zion Church of God in Christ in Camden, North Carolina, and I’m here with Mr. Joshua Sawyer. So, Mr. Sawyer what is your occupation?
Joshua Sawyer: My occupation is that of a teacher. I’m a high school math teacher at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
RS: Where are you originally from?
JS: I’m originally from Camden, NC, which is about ten minutes away from Elizabeth City.
RS: So, you’ve lived in North Carolina your entire life?
JS: Yeah. Born and breed. Carolina man.
RS: Product of the Carolina school system as well?
JS: Yes sir. I, again, grew up in Camden County so I was educated through Camden County Schools until I actually transitioned to the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham, North Carolina. That’s where I actually completed my junior and senior years of my formal K-12 education. Following that I did also attend UNC Chapel Hill for my undergrad degree where I graduated in the year 2002 with a degree in Biostatistics with a minor in Jazz Studies.
RS: So you are a high school teacher, what subject?
JS: I’m actually a high school math teacher. I’m currently teaching pre-calculus and advanced functions. I’ve also taught statistics, geometry, pre-algebra, algebra II. So you know, pretty much all the way across the board.
RS: If you could, describe for me what a typical day of work is like for you.
JS: Alright. Well, I guess a typical day is, you know, we go in and I teach. And I deal with about seventy-five students each day. We’re on the block system so I have three separate classes that I’m responsible for. So again, about seventy-five students in a day, and we have those ninety-minute blocks and I try to help put some learning in them.
RS: If you could, what is the makeup of your student population?
JS: Well let’s see. The school itself is about--is about one thousand students--somewhere around one thousand students. And the demographic makeup is close to fifty-fifty black white population. Now of course there are also some other ethnicities at the school as well. Some Asians, some Hispanic, but I’m not exactly sure what the numbers are. You know, but it’s roughly--if you just consider you know, I’mma call it the black/white population--it’s roughly about fifty-fifty.
RS: Very interesting. So, with that small percentage of ethnicities outside of the black and white, do you have those students in your courses?
JS: Yeah, actually I do. I have one young lady who is from Malaysia. She’s actually of mixed ethnicity, but she’s from Malaysia and I believe her mother is from Malaysia. I have one other student who is from, who is from Taiwan. And they actually have been sharing with me some information about their experiences in the other countries and, you know, how it is—how they have to adjust even here in the United States and in North Carolina in particular. So, it’s interesting that you ask me that question.
RS: What about the Hispanic population?
JS: Ok. One, [thinking] maybe two or thre--. Maybe two or three Hispanic students that I actually teach now. So, yeah.
RS: Is that a reflection of the general school population, or does the type of courses you teach--; are they upper level or lower level and does that play a factor?
JS: Well, I would say that not many, again as I stated before there are not many of those ethnicities at the school as a whole so part of that could be the makeup. These are more advanced courses and, but I don’t think that in itself is the key factor for, for the makeup of the classes. If I did have to say one thing I have often seen that, you know, that the African American students are sometimes underrepresented in the honors courses. But I am actually impressed that for this year in particular there is a high number of those African American students that are enrolled in the honors courses, which is something that does not always happen.
RS: Very interesting. So, if I were to sit in the back of your classroom, what are some of the types of interactions I may witness between the various demographic groups of students that you have?
JS: I would say that I try to intentionally have my students in groups so that they are first of all not with their normal peer group. Second of all, I actually situate my students so that, so that they have to interact with one another. And so a typical day what you will see is a general discourse of, I will call it maybe a main problem of the day or a main assignment of the day, which will in many cases allow for them discovery and--, either discovery of a new topic or application of what they’ve just learned and most of the discussion that you will hear will be discussion on skills, techniques. Also discussions on, you know, on reasoning and conceptual understanding whether it be--. I’m just trying to think where we are now. I know when we return we will be dealing with trigonometry, and that trigonometry they’ll be discovery the unit circle. There will be discovering the difference in your degrees and radians. Looking at the comparison between different ratios. So taking these different pieces and trying to discover what’s the big picture, and so there’s a lot of--. One thing I told my class at the beginning of the semester is that my two main focuses are to get past just the mathematics themselves; just past the skills, past the basic operations, and make sure there’s an understanding, an ability to one: think critically about a problem. To look at it and to decide what the course of action is. Also communication, being able to have them to effectively share what it is that they know, to be able to effectively share what it is that they’re doing with other people, both their colleagues as well as those who may not have the same mathematical knowledge that they do. So that’s definitely one thing that you will see lots of communication dealing with the topic, dealing with the math itself. So, that’s--. I will say that’s a hallmark of, I’mma call it a Sawy--. A Sawyer classroom.
RS: So, in essence you seem to be using math to stimulate greater communication and tangible life skills in your students. Is that a correct assumption?
JS: It’s interesting that you ask that. One assignment that they were given was actually an essay, and it would stem from what I sometimes post on Twitter. The hashtag is ‘Math and Life Lessons’. And so what the students were asked to do was to think of three quote unquote “tweets” that both relate to life and to math. And what they shared with me was definitely very intriguing and there were some things that I tried to give to them in the beginning first of all knowing and understanding that what my kids will take from my courses is not necessarily how to simplify radicals or how to, you know, reduce a double angle identity. But what they are going to take from my class is: ok was he a good person? Did he really care about me? Did he really teach me that I have something more in myself that I can achieve? And so, some of the things that they really shared with me, they would say something like; you know, basically, simplify whenever possible. Looking at a big problem and find the subcomponents. Identify the factors, you know. One that I actually shared with them is that a problem is not a problem, simply a set of issues. If you deal with the issues, then you take care of the problem. And I will go ahead and say this: sometimes when we deal with a certain topic called factoring, you know, many times my students look at the word factoring like it, like it’s a taboo word. So when we get to that sometimes I just tell them to F it. And so, many of my students actually took that and they say even when life kind of throws, throws difficult situations at you sometimes you just got to F it. And when they say that--and they all said that because I checked their papers. They said sometimes you have to forget it, some things you just have to forget. Some things you just got to let go. So, I’m hoping that what I’m doing is instilling something in them that okay, the thing that you learn here in this math course--. You know I had another student that said turn your negatives into positives. I mean I’m looking at them, reading the papers myself and getting blown away by the insight, by the in-depthness that they’re putting towards--that they put towards their work, their assignments. It was interesting. So that’s what I hope to leave with them is, you know, something more that the math with what we’re doing actually reve--, Relevant beyond just the four walls of my classroom. But I’m also trying to teach them things on how to treat people, on just how to be a better person in general. And then hopefully by then, you know, have some critical thinking, actually have some mathematical skills being developed at the same time.
RS: Awesome. So this is a very unique approach, unique approach from what I hear. Is this common among your teaching colleagues?
JS: Honestly, I don’t know. I would say amongst my math colleagues I don’t know if they’re doing some of the same things that I’m doing. I will say that I think differently. I don’t know if I consider myself a--not necessarily a Renaissance man--but somewhat eclectic. And so I like to bring a lot of different approaches to my classroom. One thing that I’ve always kind of said about myself is that I’ve always had a lot of things that I wanted to do, whether it be a comedian, or a musician, or a--; someone who inspires, and things like that. And being a teacher seems to allow me to do a little bit of all of that. So, that’s one thing that I definitely appreciate about this job; being a teacher. And also, being a teacher I’m able to identify and cultivate potential. I’m able to see--. I’m able to hopefully light a fire, hopefully able to inspire someone; hopefully able to be someone’s last chance, you know, for them to be successful. So that’s what I hope to, what I hope to achieve.
RS: So to talk about the North Carolina school system more generally, could you talk about the educational standards for the courses that you teach and what measures are in place to help measure students’ success in understanding the information?
JS: I will say that at this point the standards are very interesting. And I say that seriously and I say that sarcastically. We’re now currently transitioning to what are called the Common Core Standards, which is a virtually nation-wide set of standards that, that are used to measure students growth. And instead of basically each state being accountable for their standards, we’re now looking at a more centralized learning system. Which is good, but the difficult part right now is the understanding of exactly what is being expected of students and even--you spoke on the assessment, the assessment measures are basically just being--just coming into play. And so, there used to be a series of end-of-course exams and now there’ll be assessed what I call measures, student learning, or what are called MSL exams that will be administered at the end of the year on this year, and its actually going to be a new experience for all of us. I’m anxiously awaiting the end of the semester to see how my students perform on this, on this assessment.
RS: Now back to your students. Does your school offer any English as Second Language Services?
JS: We offer ESL services, I believe, for students in their first--. I don’t know if it’s first year or maybe the first three years of them entering into the you--; for students who are just beginning English or what have you. There are services in place in the school system for those students to receive extra assistance. I can recall a student I dealt with several years ago who, in a pre-algebra course, he spoke no English at all. And it was very intriguing that even my expectation was for him to know the same things that everyone else in the class knew. And I knew the struggle that he had because not only did he have to learn the mathematics, but he also had to comprehend a whole new language at the same time, understand a whole new environment, a whole new climate, and it was definitely interesting. He was a quiet young man, and he didn’t say much but what I noticed was that the work he gave me was, was very top quality. It was, once again, unfortunate that I believe after about a year of me having him as a student, I believe he dropped out of school and, you know I do think that was unfortunate. I hope that, again, I was able to at least reach him and, happened to see him a couple of years later and, you know he might not have been able to say much, but he recognized my face. I was able to shake his hand and at least we had that pleasant smile. So--. But yes the ESL services are available for students to receive extra assistance.
RS: So you’ve mentioned a brief story about an ESL student that you’ve had. And so, do you feel the ESL services at your school are adequate to meeting the needs of students?
JS: Now the--. I feel that the services are what they should be. I feel that the system in itself for how ESL services are provided might be somewhat flawed. Usually when you’re talking about English as a second language, you’re talking about bringing in people who have basically passed their learning curve, or on the latter end of the learning curve and you’re--even though you’re giving them a timeframe to learn English and to, to acquire this new language--I guess I’m going to say they’re past the age where it’s easier to learn. So even if they--. The analogy I give is even with children, we know that it’s easier to teach kids to read when they’re younger. But if you look at someone who never learned to read and then by the age of 14 or 15 now you all of a sudden learn to teach them to read, even though they have extra assistance for three years there’s still going to be a discrepancy. There’s still going to be a deficiency--excuse me--that’s the word that I was looking for. There’s going to be a deficiency, and so it is with ESL. You’re bringing in people who are past the natural learning age for a language and you’re giving them three years’ worth of services, but then you’re expecting them to kind of fend on their own and be accountable for the same information knowledge as someone who literally has known English all their lives. So is not the school itself, but the system of providing those services that may be somewhat doing these students a disadvantage.
RS: So I would ask, are your expectations different for your ESL students than your traditionally English-speaking students?
JS: [pause] I’m going to say no. I’m going to say that my goal is still for them to think and communicate. Now obviously I may have to edit maybe the amount of what I feel they should be responsible for or the method of communication, but my thoughts and my expectations are still for them to, first of all know the material, and second of all be able to show that they know the material.
RS: That’s a very interesting answer, for you as a teacher in your classroom to have that opinion. And so, how do you feel that your outlook compares or contrasts with the state of North Carolina’s outlook; their perception on measuring educational achievement for students?
JS: How do I feel that my opinion is different from that of North Carolina’s? I would actually say that it’s a similar expectation for those students who are receiving those services for three years. There is a separate set of standards that’s--a separate set of assessments that’s in place for them as well. But, you know, it’s still an expectation for them--for them to know. And as an educator, even looking at a formalized assessment system--what we call a standardized assessment system--is in itself somewhat of a misnomer because yes, we set standards but we many times are holding each and every student to the same standard. As in we’re making the expectation that each and every student is exactly the same. Which, in many cases is good that we hold that level of expectation, but in many times looking at each single test or looking at a single set of examinations that does not get to deal with each student’s individual--whether it be upbringing or background or, you know, personal history that each child possesses within themselves that either motivates or causes a child to withdraw from wanting to learn more and do more.
RS: I like how you ended that. You said their motivation from wanting to learn more or do more. And so, have you experienced students who seem disconnected from the educational experience, and if so, how do you seek to reengage them in a system that may be difficult for them—whether it be for a cultural or a language barrier?
JS: [pause] Some students I will say, they just don’t care. One thing that I have found that works is to engage them before they can become disinterested. It’s to present a classroom environment that is inviting to the point where they want to be a part of what’s going on. I know even the material that I teach is not always the most fun within itself. I like to create an environment where, where each child feels welcome to, one) express what it is that’s one their mind; and two) feel that the learning is--that it means something. The examples that I used before, to simplify radicals, to deal with trigonometric or exponential logarithmic functions, the students often ask me is that something that we use in real life. And my answer is, well yes we do. Is it something we necessarily use every day? No. But the two main strains of thinking and communicating are things that we have to do every day of our lives. We have to be able to think about the situations that we’re in. We have to be able to think about the choices we’re going to make and justify what decisions we make in life. And we have to be able to communicate with others. Unfortunately, much of the communication now is digitally and a lot of people argue that there is somewhat lost--a loss of the art of naturally talking. But even with digital communication there has to be some skills and some--[hiccups] excuse me--some things that kids need to be able to do. So those are things that are definitely real life situation. So if the content, if the coursework happens to serve as a medium for us to do those things then that’s what we do. We use pre-calculus, statistics, geometry, as a means of thinking and communicating. And I think in establishing that type of environment I’m able to keep more students motivated. Again, showing students that you care is important. So many times an unmotivated student may just want somebody to care enough for them to push them to be a part of what’s going on. That child that may be wanting to put their head down and really not participate just may need a pat on the shoulder to say “Hey, sit up.” You know, and some people just kind of want to know that hey--. It’s funny, it’s almost they want to know that “Hey, you notice me.” A lot of times they kind of go to their place on their own because they really don’t want to be bothered with what’s going on. So, as a teacher my job is to see those students and make sure I continue to keep them engaged with what’s going on. So, I feel that’s how I do it. By first of all not allowing them to get disengaged, but if so identifying it quickly and redirecting them back to what’s going on. I will say that for some, you can try and you can try--but you have to know which battles to fight. And, you know there are times that different students--your main participators may sometimes withdraw. And you just got to--I’d say you got to have some common sense and know how to deal with people. Which is an important thing to be able to do; to just deal with people.
RS: Yes. So you’ve given me a lot of insight into your classroom environment, but I would imagine that as a teacher some of your responsibilities extend outside of the four walls of your classroom. How else are you engaged with students throughout the day, through your other responsibilities?
JS: Well, of course a lot of teachers hate the fact that they have duty. And my duties this year have been to work the bus duty, and as well as working in the cafeteria and monitoring students in the cafeteria. Both of those being interesting because you see students outside of the natural four-wall element, and I’m able to watch them and, I’m going to say be their real selves. Watch them in their actual dialogue and discourse with one another and really see how they, how they get along with one another. So, seeing them outside of that classroom is interesting. Watching them as they get amongst their peers and--I’mma say with some sort of quote unquote “freedom”. They have a lot on their minds, and they have a lot that they have to say. I’ll say it like that.
RS: So you get more of an idea to the struggles they have in their lives outside of school?
JS: Yeah. I’ve had students to--who have came and shared things with me. Unfortunately we hate to see those things. I’ve had former students who, you know--. I remember one individual student in general that came to me, and they pretty much said “Hey Mr. Sawyer, I messed up.” And, it was a couple of days later they were being expelled from school for some felonious charges. And they kind of looked at me, and the look in their face, you could really see that--. I’mma say this was a young man that was getting ready to break down and cry but he couldn’t do it because he was in front of his colleagues. But for him to come to me with that and to actually be able to confide in me, you know--or I’mma say, to even respect me enough to know that those weren’t my standards. And I still respect that young man even to this day. I’ve seen that some things have turned out better for him at that point. And even him wanting to come to me and share those things with me was inspiring. I’ve had young ladies to come and share some of the mistakes they’ve made. You know, being young and being teenagers, what have you. I guess you call it being in love or maybe just not making the best of decisions. And you know, they find themselves with child. And they’ve been able to share those things with me. And I do think that I’ve been able to share some actual, again life lessons. Some actual life counsel to help them and--; you know, as they take care of their child. And I guess you’ll say—some people say make the best of a bad situation.
RS: So you mentioned earlier that in your classroom you try to mix the students to provide diversity in their classroom work groups. Do you see that same mixing occurring in your cafeteria duties or on your bus duties or things like that?
JS: There are some. I can think of some groups of, some groups of friends that are a diverse group. But the cafeteria is, I will say, somewhat of a segregated place; in general. Again, there are exceptions to the rule, and I can think of a few pods as I walk around visually in my mind. As I walk around I see some different groups, but as a whole I think people tend to unfortunately, I would say hang with who they are more comfortable with. And, in many cases it’s the same demographic. But I think it all goes back to whoever they’re comfortable with. Because I know even amongst blacks and amongst the whites--what have you--all the black people don’t get along with each other. All the white people don’t get along with each other. So I think it all goes back to being comfortable with, sitting with those or--. I’mma say hanging with those who they’re more comfortable with.
RS: Interesting. So, some academics state that the educational challenges and the social challenges of Hispanic students are similar to those of African Americans. Being that your school--as you quoted--is more or less 50-50 between black and white, how would you respond to that statement? How would you compare the experience of Hispanic students and African American students based on your experiences in the school?
JS: Now say that first part again.
RS: Some scholars state that the educational challenges of Hispanic students is similar to that of African Americans.
JS: And I would ask you what type of challenges do they mention? What specific type of comparisons are they making between the Hispanics and the blacks? Is it in the--? I guess being at a disadvantage because of their race? Is it certain disconnects being made between--? I guess what are some of the comparisons that are being said between the whites and--excuse me--between the blacks and Hispanics?
RS: Well, I think there’s a variety of viewpoints we can take on this, but I’ll allow you to explore any options that you feel comfortable with. Whether it’s the disconnect in the dominant culture and the minority culture. Whether it’s the lack of mentorship in the student populations. However you choose to approach that.
JS: Ok. Well, looking at the African Americans: for the longest, actually for the last maybe--the past maybe four or five years there was only one core teacher--; actually at this point I would say that myself--. If you look at the four core disciplines: math, science, English, and social studies, I am the only black male teacher at the school. So, when we talk about mentorship a lot of times that is definitely lost. And even looking at Hispanic teachers as a whole, I think we may have two at the entire school. So I can definitely understand for them not having an abundance of familiar faces that they can associate with. I can understand that that may possibly be an issue that I know--many times, I’mma say specifically our black males students have to deal with--again I can definitely see that being an issue. So, I can see some similarities in that. I’m not sure if I can really say much about those other ones. I know that’s one thing that really, I guess, came to my mind in trying to look at this question.
RS: Interesting. So, I’ll give you a more open-ended question as we get close to wrapping up. If you were given an unlimited fund devoted to improving the educational experience of Latino immigrant students, what measures would you take?
JS: I would say that while it would be important for them to--. I’m looking at two different parts: 1) they, because of standards they have to learn--I’mma use the word learn the system. They would have to learn the language, and I will say the method of communication for the school system or what have you. But one thing that I do feel would be important for them is to also be able to have a sense of self, a sense of belonging with one another. And so if possible for those areas that--whether it be the humanities, whether it be the histories, and some of those other courses--if they could be offered in their native language then I think that would be something that would be helpful. Not letting the English language be the barrier for their understanding. Having resources available for them for things such as, as you mentioned before, mentorship. And again, making sure they have those resources. I know schools in general could definitely utilize better teacher pay. And again have the staff and the funds to properly reward the staff for the job they do with the students on a daily basis. That would be another thing that those funds would go towards.
RS: That’s a very interesting answer. So as we begin to wrap up¸ is there any final comments you would have? Any other perspective you would like to share on this topic?
JS: Well, I think that’s about it for today.
RS: Well, again thank you very much for your time. This is Raymond Sawyer with Mr. Joshua Sawyer, and thank you very much for taking the time out today.
JS: You’re welcome.