Stephen Kemp ’11
Major: Mathematics Education

Tell us about your journey to where you are now.

This is my ninth year as a math educator after graduating from Concordia College. I first taught at Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists (SPCPA) for three years. While at SPCPA, I received Solution Tree’s Redefining Excellence in the Classroom award and FOX9 TV’s Top Teacher award in 2014. From there, I began teaching at Eastview High School District 196. This is my sixth year there. I teach Algebra 2, AP Calculus AB, and AP Calculus BC for the past few years. Previously, I have taught many math courses, including Algebra 1, Geometry, and Pre-Calculus.

In 2015, I had saved up enough money to go to grad school. While most educators pursue an M.A. in education, the true nerd inside of me pushed me to pursue an M.S. in mathematics. In 2017, I graduated with a master’s degree in mathematics from Emporia State University in Emporia, Kan. This choice to pursue a master’s in my content area rather than education has opened many doors to new opportunities, including teaching inmates this past summer.

In fall 2018, I began teaching at the University of St. Thomas. I have taught an evening course each semester since then. This spring, I am teaching an evening course at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights, Minn. Through this connection with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, I was approached to teach a unique group of students: inmates. As I am always eager for new experiences, I took the job. So, this past summer, I taught a Math 1101 course at the Faribault Department of Corrections.

My class consisted of 25 male offenders. These men are earning credits to earn an Associate of Arts degree by the time they are released from prison. The course covered topics that are not studied in high school. We focused on voting theory (how to create a voting system and determining whether it is fair), graph theory (studying systems and applying it to create conflict-free schedules), and financial mathematics (learning the mathematics behind personal finance). Hence, very few algebra and geometry prerequisites were in place for this course. This created an easy entry point for all of the offenders, regardless of when they previously took a math course.

What is the best part of your job?

I really enjoy when students discover that true mathematics is a lot more than just numbers and procedures. It is hard to do this, especially when teaching algebra in high school with the constraints of standards and pacing guides. True mathematics, in my opinion, studies patterns and systems. For example, I am proud when my calculus students understand that calculus is the study of change, not simply knowing how to do derivatives and integrals. I believe I can accomplish this goal and most enjoy my job when we apply mathematics to the world around us.

Another highlight of my job is teaching these young scholars life skills. All educators need to remember that our purpose is to influence the lives of our students so they can be productive, thoughtful members of society. Truly, I believe my primary objective is not to teach students mathematics. Instead, my objective is to teach students life skills through the lens of studying mathematics. It is easy to lose sight of this when I am overwhelmed with students who are struggling and other work associated with teaching. 

I love to see students identify how they have grown personally, with traits and mindsets needed for their future. For example, I am so proud when students choose to have a growth mindset to react to a setback rather than be frustrated and give up. Similarly, the following are other examples that show my students are growing: learning to collaborate with their peers, advocating for themselves, learning to accept consequences of their behaviors and decisions, and thinking before doing.

When teaching the inmates, both of the big ideas that I shared above are true. I really enjoyed not being confined to the common curriculum of algebra and geometry. The inmates embraced mathematics a lot more than in other classes I have taught because we used mathematics to solve problems in our society. They found relevance in all of the curriculum, but most importantly the personal finance knowledge and tools they now have. It is very clear to me that student interest drives motivation.

Other notes about teaching in the Department of Corrections:

  • The men were always eager and excited for math class. I asked why and they responded, “We look forward to coming to class because there is nothing else we have to look forward to during the week.” This really bring perspective into life in prison.
  • The men are incredibly hard working. They want to do well and earn the Associate in Arts degree because they want a better life when they are released from prison. They know they are more likely to get a job with this degree.
  • It is clear that personal finance should be taught to ALL students in high school. Truly, changing mathematics curriculum to make room for significant study and practice with personal finance will serve all students much more than studying a second year of algebra (i.e., the Algebra 2 course).

What skills are necessary for success in your industry?

Flexibility, persistence, patience, and good humor are vital to enjoy teaching and to make an impact on the students you teach. Teenagers may bring a lot of stress, anxiety, and issues into a classroom. As an educator, you need to know how to navigate all of that and still ensure learning occurs. When lessons do not go how you had planned and that WILL happen, you need to be able to breathe easy, smile, and even laugh about it. In education, I believe there is always more work to be done. You can never do it all, so you need to be able to prioritize both work in the classroom with students and work that you bring home. I use the phrase “reluctant learners” a lot when talking about teenagers, so both patience and persistence is needed to convince them to want to learn.

What do you wish you knew in college that you know now?

Work smarter, not harder. I am a hard worker, but that is not why I found success in education. I am continuing to become a better educator because I reflect daily on how I teach and my interactions with students. I seek out advice and perspectives from colleagues who teach a concept differently or run their classroom differently than me. I read books and articles that challenge the status quo in education.

How did your time at Concordia prepare you for your current work?

Concordia taught me the value of becoming responsibly engaged in my community, which includes both my local community as well as the community of math educators. I am influencing all of my students – from teenagers to college students to inmates – to help them prepare for their futures with the skills and mindsets they need to do so. I am eager to get involved in mathematics education reform to ensure we are teaching students the ideas and skills that are necessary to be responsible, productive members of society.