Even though Baker is locally situated on Chicago’s North Shore, its history and teaching practices have a national reputation. Many teachers come to Baker early in their career and are deeply influenced by the experience of teaching in such a unique progressive school. In upcoming blogs, we are excited to feature some of our alumni, as well as our alumni teachers, who have continued to champion a progressive education in their work in other settings. Alex Haines was a Middle School Math Teacher and Advisor from 2010 – 2013 who now instructs math teachers at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. In this piece you’ll learn about the ways that Alex was deeply shaped by the students he worked with and by his experience at Baker.
Did your time at Baker have any impact on your teaching philosophy?
The students at Baker taught me to expect more from my students, since they expected more from me. Baker kids were not satisfied with memorizing any rule unless they understood it. Why do you multiply by the reciprocal when dividing by a fraction? Why is anything to the power of 0 equal to 1? I realized that I didn’t know the answers to some of those questions myself, since I had been taught to memorize patterns rather than understand the big ideas of math. My students wanted more from me, and I worked every day to raise my teaching to that level.
Do you have any favorite memories from your time at Baker?
My favorite day at Baker was the boat race in the pool. I remember being told, early on in my first year, that the kids would be making boats from cardboard boxes and racing them in the pool. I had assumed that the boats would be little sailboats, like the ones I used to make that floated down the gutters in a rainstorm. But no, there the kid were, climbing into cardboard kayaks decorated with pirate flags and trash bags. Amazing.
My other favorite memory isn’t a specific moment, but a series of interactions that I treasure to this day. My colleague, Dennis Gallagher, often taught our most precocious math students. I loved when one of his students would knock on my door and show me a problem that none of them could solve. I’d take a crack at it overnight and come back the next day with anything I might have noticed. In those moments, the line between teacher and student started to fall away. It was just Dennis and Louisa and Ben and Ezra and I, putting our heads together to solve a problem.
What were you not prepared for when you first started teaching at Baker? For example, would you still bring a rolling suitcase on your first camping trip? (yes, we still have the photo)
I WOULD bring a rolling suitcase on a camping trip, because I remain an avid indoorsman to this day! The camping was definitely a shock, especially since I had to eat a menu entirely devised by my sixth grade students.
I was also terrified that someone would find out about my comedy “career,” which was still ongoing when I started at Baker. I performed stand-up under my middle name, Kent, which I had gone by growing up. I tried to switch to Alex, my first name, in my professional setting, but I was probably worried over nothing. Eventually one kid found out and within a week everyone knew. I quickly realized it was even more fun to deny the obvious truth, so I made a habit of saying “I don’t know what you’re talking about” whenever a kid asked me. They’d even bring up pictures of my headshot on their Chromebooks, but I’d insist that he looked nothing like me. Big country, lotta Haineses out there, you know?
The real core of that story, however, is that I never intended to remain a teacher. I just wanted a day job until I made enough as a stand-up to hit the road full-time. But after my first year at Baker, I realized that I felt so much more fulfilled by teaching than I ever did onstage. I quit performing that summer and haven’t missed it even a little bit. So I have Baker to thank for helping me find my true passion in life.
Have you kept in touch with any of your former Baker students/teachers?
I check in with Jon Bingaman and Tyler Leach via text. We all started the same year and became very close during that time. I also keep in touch every once in a while with one of my old advisees. I wrote a blog post a few years back about what I learned from being her teacher, and I love finding out where she’s headed since. But I’d love to hear from other students! Changing my name back to Kent when I moved home probably didn’t help anyone find me.
What have you been doing since leaving Baker?
I taught middle school math around Birmingham for 6 years, and now I am an instructor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where I work with future teachers on how to learn and teach math.
I have also spent the past 2 1/2 years working on a resource for parents who want to help their kids develop mathematical thinking at home. Parents know to read to their kids for 20 minutes a night, but what about math? I believe the answer is to play mathematically rich board games and to have conversations about the math that your kids interact with along the way. I have a weekly newsletter called Games for Young Minds where I share a new game (sometimes free, sometimes commercial) that you can play at home with kids of varying ages. I explain the math in the game and make suggestions for questions to ask while playing. The complete archive is available at my website.
Do you have any interesting future plans?
Keep teaching math, keep playing games! I do need to figure out how to get a group of 2nd grade boys to run a clean pick-and-roll offense, but that’s taking longer than expected.
Here is a family photo from the fall. That’s Joel (7) Haddie (5) and Dalia (2)