Opinion

The story of three wise women

by Don C. Brunell
President, Association of
Washington Business

This time of year we read the ancient Bible story about the Magi, three wise men from the east sent by King Herod, bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. Christians often feel blessed because Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar ignored Herods instructions and spared the new born savior from execution.
As I watched Gov. Gregoire roll out her education initiative, Washington Learns, with its heavy emphasis on math and science, I thought back to three wise women who gave the gift of knowledge to thousands of students. These three women, who were math teachers in Butte, Mont., are just what the governor is looking for today.
Ruth Tarrant, Muriel Ralph and Beverly Satterlee taught math in a variety of ways. All three were demanding, skilled instructors who drilled the basics into their students and made them work hard to earn passing grades, without the benefit of slide rules, adding machines, computers or calculators.
In the 1950s and 1960s there was no Montana equivalent to WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning), yet the teachers knew if their students had mastered math at their grade levels. They worked with struggling students because they believed that if their students failed, they had failed.
Mrs. Tarrant was a loving grandmotherly woman who taught third grade. Her specialty was math and her job was to make sure we knew addition, subtraction and multiplication tables. We were tested and tested, and at the end of the school year we knew our math. As a reward, she had her son, a store owner, bring his adding machine to the classroom. We would see if we could stump the machine, but she made us do the math ourselves to check its accuracy.
Ms. Ralph was our high school geometry teacher. A stately stern woman with a soft heart, she had a systematic approach to everything. Ms. Ralph would come to school precisely 45 minutes before classes started and stay an hour after school to help struggling students. Her rule was as long as you tried hard and used her system, you had her time. If you were there to butter her up or con her into a passing grade, you got bounced.
Mrs. Satterlee was a college trigonometry and calculus instructor at a small engineering college with a strong academic reputation. Even though she did not have a doctorate and was not accorded a professorship, Mrs. Satterlee was voted the outstanding math teacher year after year.
Students fought to get into her classes and she spent every Saturday morning in her office working with anyone who needed help. Her only demand was students learn math without using a slide rule, although she did allow you to use one to check your answers.
Today, students have computers and sophisticated calculators to do their math for them. You have to wonder, with so many failing the WASL, if students shouldnt spend more time with pencils and paper mastering the basics the old-fashioned way.
Math and science are difficult subjects. Students have to work hard to master them, and many young people accustomed to booting up their computers or calculators to find easy answers dont see the need to learn math. But those young people and many in the education community fail to appreciate the benefit of learning to work hard and think in a focused, diligent way.
The governors call for more qualified math and science teachers is critical to the success of her initiative. Her proposed financial assistance to help teachers with the national certification in math and science is a welcome, as is her plan to provide bonuses for qualified math and science teachers.
Our success will be measured by whether or not we can find and keep teachers like Ruth Tarrant, Muriel Ralph and Beverly Satterlee. They are worth their weight in gold, frankincense and myrrh.

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