Math-phobia? Lisa Spitzer Can Help
Of all academic subjects, the one least likely to illicit enthusiasm is probably math. For some, math phobia may even interfere with career potential. It may stop people from attending college or going back to school after a career change. They worry it’s just too hard or that they’ll never make it through. Fortunately, Centralia College’s Lisa Spitzer can help.
In her role as Developmental Math Assistant Professor, Spitzer teaches pre-college math courses to help students bridge the gap from their current level of math proficiency to entry-level collegiate math courses. She works with students from every background and walk of life, including high school graduates, GED recipients, High School 18+ students, those reintegrating into society after prison sentences, people recovering from addiction, those retraining for a new career and international students. “It keeps me on my toes because I never know what I’m going to get,” she said.
Originally from Lacey, Spitzer began her career teaching middle and high school math in Hawaii. She encountered the opportunity at a job fair and decided to go for it. “I thought, I might as well interview and see what happens,” she said. She was hired on the spot.
Four years later, she returned home and began teaching in Yelm, where she stayed for the next 11 years.
Spitzer had long dreamed of teaching at the collegiate level, but she enjoyed her position and coworkers so much, she let that ambition slide. But her sister remembered her goal and started looking for positions to fulfill it. Finally, she found the right opportunity at Centralia College. “My sister said, ‘You should interview for this job; it’s made for you,’” Spitzer recalled.
As with the Hawaii position, Spitzer decided there was no harm in interviewing. “I thought I’d just do the interview and see,” she said. “Nothing bad will happen if I try. If I get it, I can take it. If not, that’s fine because I really like what I’m doing.”
When they offered her the position, Spitzer was excited. But accepting required some serious contemplation. It came with a pay cut, from full-time to two-thirds-time. Plus it added a 45-minute commute. She discussed it with her husband and Yelm’s school principal, who assured her she’d always have a job to return to if needed.
Finally, she decided to take the leap. “It was something I’d always wanted to try,” she said. “This was God telling me to open the door.”
She immediately knew she’d made the right choice. “That first year, I just fell in love with it,” she said.
A Passion for Teaching
Spitzer loves helping students accomplish their goals. “I really feel like, at this level, you’re truly changing a person’s path,” she said. “You’re really helping them go in a more positive direction. It’s really exciting for me. That’s why I wake up at 4:00 every morning to drive to Centralia.”
To help students succeed in her classes and beyond, Spitzer weaves study and life skills into her math curriculum. She coaches students on how to be successful in college and teaches them self-advocacy skills like the importance of good communication. She also helps students develop confidence in themselves by showing them what they can accomplish with dedication, perseverance, bravery and a little help.
One particularly memorable student came to Spitzer’s Math 95 class with severe math anxiety. It was so bad, she struggled to make it through each session. She’d cry, shake and inevitably pack up her stuff and leave. “I’ve had students with anxiety before but nothing like this,” Spitzer said.
The student wanted to use the college’s tutoring services, but it was too overwhelming. Spitzer said she often came to the door, but couldn’t bring herself to enter and ask for help. Spitzer worked with the student to overcome her fear one small step at a time. The first milestone was getting through class without leaving. “That was a success,” Spitzer said.
The student didn’t pass the class that quarter, but she reenrolled the next. “That’s success right there,” Spitzer said. “She wanted to try it again.”
Spitzer positioned the student at the back of the classroom, right by the door. “That way, if she felt she couldn’t handle it, she could step into the hallway and take a breather,” she said.
This time, the student not only stayed through class, she passed. “The transformation from fall to winter quarter was just amazing,” Spitzer said.
From there, the student enrolled in the next math level. Succeeding gave her confidence. Soon, she was helping others. “During fall quarter, this student would hyperventilate when I said the word ‘fractions’ and now she’s helping other people with them,” Spitzer said. “It’s amazing to see how she’s grown.”
Spitzer is well versed at meeting the diverse needs of her students. She offers extra tutoring hours and, with the flexibility of courses in the Math Emporium, works with each student on a one-on-one basis, sometimes making individual connections three to five times per class. This enables her to give some students extra help and others, extra challenges.
After seeing a history of math video, one student latched onto the idea of math battles – a game played by early mathematicians. Now, he often asks Spitzer to math battle, racing to see who solves the puzzle first. “That was pretty inspiring,” Spitzer said.
Words of Wisdom
Spitzer encourages students to maintain open lines of communication with their professors. “Some of my students are scared to talk to a professor about something they’re struggling with,” she said. “They’re scared to bring it up, but it’s essential to just communicate. They can help you or they can’t, but if you never ask the questions, you‘ll miss out on whatever they could have helped you with. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Spitzer also advises students to persevere. “If something is hard, just keep working at it, trying and practicing. If a professor knows you’re still working on it, they’re more inclined to help you through it.”
During her spare time, Spitzer volunteers with Students for Life, which supports pregnant families on campus. They connect parents with resources and donate baby supplies to the Centralia College Food Pantry. “We’re small but we’re mighty,” Spitzer said.
When Spitzer first took the job six years ago, it wasn’t eligible for tenure. However, becoming a tenured professor was one of her life goals. So, she did what she teaches her students to do and advocated for herself.
“You fill out professional development forms each year,” Spitzer said. “Under goals, I’d write ‘I’d like to be tenure someday.’ We had that conversation for three years.”
Finally, the answer was yes.
Spitzer enjoyed the tenure process, specifically connecting with other professors and receiving feedback. Now that she’s officially earned tenure, she feels a comforting sense of relief. “I can stay here and am guaranteed a position every year,” she said. “I just love that security, to know that my position is here and that I get to continue working with students I love and adore. It’s an accomplishment and I feel honored. This is truly what I was meant to do.”