Natascha Rivet didn’t always want to be a math teacher. In fact, her first love was dance. She just didn’t know if it was the right career for her.
“I knew I could do it as a hobby or a fun activity,” said Rivet, who knew if she made dance her work, it might not be as enjoyable. “I didn’t know if I wanted to make a living doing it.”
Rivet decided to take another route and studied math. Currently an associate professor in mathematics at Delta College, she is teaching beginning and intermediate algebra, as well as business calculus.
“I always liked math and I was always good at it,” she said. “So, that made it easy.”
But that doesn’t mean Rivet has forgotten about what might have been if she had taken another career path.
“I had all these other things I wanted to do,” she said. Besides dance, “I wanted to be in archaeology.”
Now, Rivet teaches her students about carbon dating and asks them to solve math problems that involve exponential growth and decay.
“Let’s do some forensic anthropology,” she’ll tell her students. “Let’s see how old this skeleton would’ve been. You’re digging in the back yard and you uncover these skeletal remains. Use this formula to figure out if you should call the police or a museum."
Rivet also develops math problems related to dance. Such as, ‘Which percentage of the population would qualify to be a Rockette by height?’
It’s relevant. Rivet tried out for the famed dance company.
“I didn’t make it in the door because I was too short,” she said. “So, I auditioned for the ballet section but didn’t make it.”
Teaching students to use math in every day life is what Rivet tries to bring to each class. Being approachable and available by email also is key.
“I try to keep things really light,” she said. “Because I know even while I was good at math and liked math as a student, I was nervous.”
Rivet tells her students that she won’t make them math lovers in 15 weeks. She’s simply hoping students appreciate math more and see where it might fit into their lives.
“Students will say, ‘I’m not good at math.’ And I always say, ‘yet.’ I always try to add that word at the end.”
Changes in technology, since Rivet started at Delta in 2002, have played a role in the classroom. Instead of using graphing calculators, most students have smart phones – something that can be a positive and a negative.
“We’ll fill the whole board with notes and they’re trying to scramble to write it down,” Rivet said. “I say, ‘hold on,’ I just take a picture, I post it on eLearning and they don’t have to write it down. They can sit back and talk about it and participate.”
One of the negatives is Rivet having to worry about students who might take a photo of a test. Another is the availability of the Internet.
“You can just type a problem into Google and it gives you all the answers with the problem worked out,” she said. “But it’s also great, if you miss a day. My students will say ‘I went to Khan Academy. Or, I Googled it and there’s 800 YouTube videos of someone teaching that topic.’ ”
Rivet will sometimes hear students say, ‘I don’t need math.’ Her response is not what you might expect.
“When are you ever going to factor in life? You won’t,” she said. “You’ll never, ever repeat this process again unless you teach math or tutor your kid.
“But it’s a mental exercise just like it’s a physical exercise. You’re learning a thought process that is training you to think in a certain logical step-by-step pattern. And even if you don’t use that pattern again, you’re going to have this thought process that you can extend to other areas.”
Rivet relishes the fresh start every semester brings. She calls it the January 1 feeling and enjoys having it more than once a year. Another highlight is when students figure out a math problem with which they’ve struggled.
“It’s such a relief,” Rivet said. “Last semester, I had a nontraditional student leave the class in tears, throw her book to the floor and say ‘I’m leaving.’ She ended up doing great. On the last day I said, ‘I’m glad you didn’t leave.’ ”
Rivet’s upbeat attitude toward teaching led to her winning the Bergstein Award for Teaching Excellence in 2014.
“You have to take those few successes and those aha moments that you see,” she said. “Whether you see them taking another math class or the couple students you see at graduation, it’s what helps motivate me.”