Spotlight: Nate Kirsch (TN '19)February 28, 2020
Nate Kirsch (TN ’19) hopes his students leave his class confident in their ability to tackle tough issues: “The ability to stay put and keep fighting when things are hard will help them thrive in relationships, at work and in life.” Nate won Tennessee’s 2019-20 Milken Award at Whitehaven High School in Memphis on January 8, 2020.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?
Nate Kirsch (TN ’19): I always enjoyed math and enjoyed explaining things I understood well to other people. But in college I had a hard time envisioning my adult life starting with a 6 a.m. wake up, so I pursued a math major instead of a math education major. I tried a few different careers after graduation, but I missed doing math. My favorite part of my life was hanging out with the high school youth group kids at my church. I considered changing careers and becoming a youth pastor, but I realized that as a teacher I would get way more time around kids and could use my passion for mathematics as well. It seemed like a perfect fit.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Nate: It was wild. I was teaching at Hamilton High School in Memphis, which had just been taken over by an organization called the Innovation Zone (IZone). Over 50% of the teachers had been let go and all of the administrative staff was new. But our building leader Mr. Curtis Weathers was incredible. He got me through the year. He helped me see firsthand what “warm-strict” meant by building relationships with teachers and students while still holding everyone to a high standard of professionalism and behavioral/academic excellence.
I became close with the other teachers in my department and sought advice from veteran Memphis Teacher Residency teachers who had taught Algebra 2 before. I don’t know how first year teachers survive without the help of experienced teachers who share materials and ideas.
MFF: What do you like about high school students?
Nate: High school kids are awesome. They have the ability to think deeply about life and about mathematics. I love being one of the final stops on their journey toward adulthood. With some students I am just a teacher (which is great), but with some of my athletes and students I have gotten closer to, I get to help them process things that are happening in their lives, plan for the future, and offer the perspective of someone who has been through the phases of life they are approaching, which is an honor. Most high schoolers understand logic and reason but are still humble enough to ask for advice. So you can talk about almost anything. Being around them is a lot of fun!
MFF: You’re both a teacher and a coach. How does your experience as an athlete impact your work in the classroom?
Nate: My experience as a student athlete in high school and college taught me how to be efficient with my time. I’m also a pretty competitive person and have high standards for myself. I actually struggled with feelings of inadequacy when I won the Award because I see so many ways I still need to grow as a teacher. But I guess it is that drive to be better today than I was yesterday that has helped me grow as a teacher and has given me the moderate success I have experienced so far.
MFF: Tell us about the math camp you’re bringing to Memphis.
Nate: The Marjorie Lee Browne Summer Math Discovery Camp is opening this summer in Memphis and we are extremely excited! It is a five-week day camp for rising seventh graders where we will explore advanced mathematical concepts like proof, logic, cryptarithms, combinatorics, voting theory and number theory. In addition to exploring those ideas, students will also work to refine their skills and deepen their understanding of school math concepts like fractions, ratios, exponents and interpreting word problems. We are partnering with Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM) to provide the most interesting mathematics we can so we can capture the imaginations of the next generation of mathematicians, scientists, engineers and computer scientists. It’s going to be awesome!
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Nate: My favorite teachers in high school were my calculus teacher Mr. White and my pre-calculus teacher Mr. Hollenbach. They brought passion and energy to instruction and challenged me to think deeply. My favorite professors in college were Dr. Ken Kiers, Dr. Bob Davis, and Dr. Matt Delong. Their ability to organize complex ideas and communicate concisely was remarkable. I would like to think I have pieces of each of them embedded in my teaching persona.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Nate: I remember wondering what our school assembly was about and being a little frustrated that no one seemed to be able to give me any clarity as to why we were missing class for two hours. Then when they got up and said they were going to surprise a teacher with an award I started to get nervous, wondering if it could possibly be me. And when I finally found out it was me and everyone was cheering and all eyes (and cameras) were on me I was overwhelmed. It was a wild day.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Nate: Students have all responded differently. Some former students reached out saying they thought it was well deserved. I think some of my current students have begun to trust me a little bit more now that some outside entity has vouched for my expertise. And MOST of my students (past and present) have made comments about how I have extra money and should be buying them snacks and food all the time!
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Nate: I get asked this a lot and my answer is very boring. I’m not a big money person. It is never something that has really motivated me. My plan is to give some of it away to my church and to a friend who is a full-time missionary. And maybe buy a few things that will help with coaching track. But the rest will go in the bank for a rainy day.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Nate: Every kid is different, so my definition of success is different for every student. For some, success is coming to school every day and giving good effort. For some, success will be responding with self-confidence when they fail. For some students we set very tangible goals: a 3, 4, or 5 on the AP Calculus exam.
Overall, I feel successful if kids are growing in their ability to problem-solve, see patterns and make connections, and persevere through challenging work. There are few greater feelings than getting an email from a college kid thanking me for their experience in my class in high school and noting that it prepared them for rigorous college mathematics. My hope is that when kids from Whitehaven step into the next chapter of their lives they are able to feel like they belong in the room with any kid who went to one of the “best” high schools in Memphis.
MFF: What lessons do you hope your students take away from their time with you?
Nate: I hope my students leave my class as better thinkers and believing they can do challenging work. Confidence in yourself will translate to any vocation. The ability to stay put and keep fighting when things are hard will help them thrive in relationships, at work and in life when faced with hardships.
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