During a typical school day, Michael Washington switches between teaching AP Calculus BC, Algebra, Precalculus, and Geometry. It’s very different from what he was doing right out of college. Conducting RTL simulations and programming field-programmable gate arrays have been replaced by grading papers and taking students on a learning odyssey through the intricacies of an often challenging subject. “I tell my students that you may go to school for one thing but you never know when God redirects your path and takes you in a different direction.” For Michael, that would mean leaving behind a budding career as an electrical engineer with Motorola to pursue what he believed to be his life purpose. “I remember being in church and hearing the pastor talk about living our purpose. I liked my job then but it was one of those things where I wanted to do something more fulfilling. I liked going to work, but I wasn’t excited about it. And I definitely couldn’t see myself doing that for 30 years. I started thinking, what about teaching?”
Michael’s experience working as a teaching assistant while a graduate student at Georgia Tech would give him a glimpse into his future. As would the SAT prep courses he taught early on at New Life Baptist Church. The confirmation really came in 2003 when he started working as a substitute teacher at Mundy’s Mill High School in Clayton County. “The first year was really hard but I liked it. I felt God confirming each year that this is why I needed to be in the classroom. There were a lot of fulfilling moments with students and parents. I have been teaching ever since.”
Michael is able to make math come alive for his students, but it doesn’t start with the material. It starts with the relationship he builds with them. “Math is hard. I’ve had students who have had a lot of bad experiences with math. Establishing a relationship where they feel comfortable asking questions is key. Also important is creating a space for them to make mistakes and know that it’s okay. They know the teacher believes in them and they can try and not be afraid of failing.” Michael points out a quote he heard long ago which still influences his teaching to this day: ‘Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.’ I’m trying to get them to learn about math. This is one way to get them there. Then they care about the material.”
It comes as no surprise that Michael would use electronics to nurture his relationship with his students. “I call it the birthday frog.” This toy frog plays a 30-second hip-hop song, and he uses it any time someone has a birthday. “We stop everything in the class when it’s someone’s birthday. I try not to embarrass the students; they tend to go with it. It only takes 30 seconds but it’s my way of letting them know they’re more important than even the material we are learning. I have kids who get really stressed out. They want an A. I tell them that grades are important, but your well being is more important than anything I could ever teach you.”
There are many reasons why Michael loves being a teacher at GAC. One reason is faith. “I was at public school for 11 years. You see all kinds of issues that pop up with kids. There are so many situations where you can see they just need God in their lives. But you’re handcuffed and can’t do anything about it. In my classes today we’ll take prayer requests. It’s good to be able to speak freely, to challenge kids to see what God has to say about a certain situation.” Another reason why he enjoys GAC is the trust that the administration places in teachers, along with the freedom to be creative. “ You know your kids. If you want to try something outside the box, they say go for it. You know what works best in your classroom.”
Michael’s work extends beyond his students to the other math teachers on staff. At every school he has worked, he has served as a mentor for new teachers. He sees it as part of his ministry. “I chose to do it because I remember how difficult the first year of teaching was. Many teachers end up leaving the profession within the first 5 years of teaching. I wanted to be able to share what I learned about how to be an effective teacher and also how not to get burnt out while teaching. It is hard to find good math teachers, and when we get one I want to be a part of developing them into the best teacher possible. I was extremely thankful to those veteran teachers who helped me grow, and I want to pass my knowledge on to others.”
Michael has never regretted leaving engineering, and we are so grateful that he did.