Ontario Gen Ed instructor helps students face their fear of math
Lina Thomas may not wear a cape, tights and knee-high boots, but she is considered a hero to her students for one particular superpower: Her ability to help them finally understand math.
“Everybody is afraid of math,” says Lina. “I’ve made my peace with that. And I don’t take it personally,” she explains of her General Education instructor responsibility for that subject on the Ontario campus.
But, she does take both the required class and her students’ success in math very seriously. “Students come through the door with the mentality that they will probably fail math,” says Lina. “There is so much fear – especially in older ones who haven’t been in school for a while.”
Lina doesn’t let their fearfulness have free rein. She has a few weapons to give them to reverse control.
“Math is black and white,” she begins. “There is no in-between; either you understand the concepts, or you don’t.” Lina is prepared to start at the beginning and has a no-one-left-behind attitude.
“I make the problems a lot simpler so that there is no panic,” she explains. “I start with basic problems, then work up to harder problems. I appreciate each student’s struggle.” Patience plays a big role in her classroom dynamic.
“Most who come in not liking math will not fall in love with it, for sure; but they make their peace with it and leave feeling it’s not so bad,” she admits. Their sense of accomplishment by overcoming something they were so intimidated by boosts their confidence going forward.
Lina is also a believer that a little fear can be a good thing. “Their fear can fuel them, make them more determined to accomplish the goals they have set for themselves. Life is difficult, but you can’t quit, you have to keep going.”
Lina understands struggle. She and her parents came to the U.S. from South America when she was just 14 years old. She spoke very little English but was determined to excel in her new country. “Being an immigrant in this country, you have to work a little extra,” she says. “A lot of our student population is Spanish-speaking, so I can relate to them and their struggle.”
She went on to earn her Bachelor’s degree from Cal State Fullerton and her Master’s degree from Cal Poly Pomona. “Education is such an important part of life and I encourage my students to go on and continue their education, as well.”
Lina likes to keep things on a personal level in the classroom. “I try to make it where it is relatable to their lives,” she says. “I try to put myself in their shoes and find what they need. We do a lot of working groups, in teams and pairs. When students have someone next to them, at their level, they feel more comfortable.”
“I love the reward that comes when a student doesn’t understand a concept and finally they do; you can see it in their faces, like a light bulb went on,” says Lina. Her classroom is full of light on any given day.
“Lina is an instructor who cares about making a difference in our SJVC students,” says Henry Madrid, Dean of Student Services, SJVC Ontario. “These students love or hate math, but Lina Thomas makes sure there is classroom engagement and the students love it.”
Lina is in the fight to win it. “A lot of times our students are struggling with personal situations and you have to do whatever you can to help them so that they can be in class every day. Teachers are on the first line of observation and have to work with others to provide assistance and advocate for them.”
“With my husband Jay’s support, I am able to give to my students what I feel they deserve,” she says. “He comes from an educational background and knows what I feel.”
Every 5-week module brings new students, new beginnings and old struggles to conquer. Teacher and students go shoulder-to-shoulder to push forward and toward shared success. “I want them to leave here knowing that there is not a difficult task out there that we cannot – that they cannot – accomplish. They have to find that within themselves.”
“One of my favorite moments is at the end of a course and someone says, ‘thank you for helping me,’” says Lina. “And then you see them walk at graduation; especially those students you really connected with and spent the most time with.” The rewards are deeply felt.
Michael Thompson graduated from the Heating, Ventilation & Air Conditioning (HVAC) program this summer, and took the time to reach out to Lina, who is one of his favorite teachers: “Just graduated and hope you still remember me. I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for all the help in algebra! It’s really helped me a lot with my new position. Take care and, again, TY!”
Lina has high expectations of her students. “I expect the world from them while they are in my class,” she says. “I expect them to go to the moon and back in their effort, as I would go to the moon and back for them. If they are participating and trying to learn, I will totally be there for them.”
The moon doesn’t seem that far away when you have Lina Thomas in your corner.