When I was a college freshman, my mother bought me a bumper sticker that said, “I must hurry and catch up with the others, for I am their leader.” That bumper sticker really bothered me. I wanted to know what my mother was implying. What did she mean by me being such an incompetent leader that I had to catch up with my implied followers?
It was only years later, when I found myself as a math and science teacher at a central Phoenix after-school program, that I began to understand. I constantly felt as if I was catching up with my students—their language, their needs, their dreams, and their amazing potential. I soon realized that by following my students (and especially listening to them), I became much more equipped to lead them to a true appreciation of science and mathematics.
This was a revelation for me. My background could scarcely have been more different than that of my first students. I had studied engineering at a small private college (University of Redlands in Southern California), spent a year abroad at the University of Durham in England, and graduated cum laude from the University of Arizona with a degree in mathematics. My students were largely poor Hispanic immigrants whose parents lacked even a high school diploma. On paper, I should have been leading them, but in reality it felt like the opposite. I consistently learned more from both my students and their parents (about grace and hard work) than I managed to impart. But I kept striving to catch up.
I eventually left this position, but the things I gained have never left me. I gained a husband, Miguel Gamez, a colleague from that after-school program whose South Phoenix background mirrors that of my first students and keeps me grounded. I also completed a post-baccalaureate certification program, and have been teaching high school physics and mathematics ever since.
I have continued my tradition of leading by following. As a new teacher, I participated in Phase I of the Modeling Instruction Program at Arizona State University, spending three summers attempting to catch up with some of the best high school physics teachers in the country. This resulted in even more incarnations of me as a leader. I have subsequently “led” more than a dozen Modeling Workshops in physics and mathematics, served as a resource teacher for the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, and now I find myself back at Arizona State as a Teacher In Residence for the PhysTEC program.
Luckily, I am much older and a bit wiser than I was when my mother first gave me that maddening bumper sticker. I have almost stopped feeling guilty about my leader-follower status, and now look forward to trailing a whole new group (university faculty and students) in my position as TiR. I am confident that these new followers are up to the task of outpacing me—and I will continue to strive to catch up.