“I never wanted to be a teacher because I thought, ‘Oh my god, stab me in the eye with a fork.’ I just thought it wouldn’t be a good fit and I thought it would be boring,” says Shireen Dadmehr. “And I was so wrong.”
On the other hand, when math department head Shamaa Lakshmanan and teacher Cynthia Diaz interviewed Dadmehr for her position at Ann Richards, they had no doubts, no qualms. They knew immediately that she was the perfect fit.
Now, in her seventh year at Ann Richards, Dadmehr has been elected Teacher of the Year by her fellow teachers.
Dadmehr became a teacher through an alternate route certificate program after a two year long career in applied math. During her first year as a teacher, Dadmehr was incredibly well-versed in math itself, but knew she had a lot to learn about the art of teaching. Her strategy?
“I’ve been around a lot of amazing teachers, and you just steal from the best.”
But even now, nineteen years later, having taught everything from geometry to calculus to mathematical analysis to digital electronics, having already won Akins High School Teacher of the Year, Dadmehr has never stopped stealing.
She steals from the internet, from blogs, from other teachers: “You know who I like to steal from? People who don’t teach high school and who don’t teach math.” Elements of other disciplines litter Dadmehr’s classes–peer editing, skits, posters.
And why does she do this?
“Something that really resonates with me [that Ms. Dadmehr says], something she keeps in mind when she’s teaching is that nobody is a final package,” says Shamaa Lakshamanan, her friend and coworker. “We’re all not final products, we’re all a work in progress. And I think a good teacher has that in mind.”
Dadmehr upholds this wisdom because she too is a work in progress.
“I think I have that in mind because I know what kind of idiot I was as a kid,” says Dadmehr. “Here’s me: what’s the bare minimum I can get by with to maintain a B or an A?…I just had no qualms about doing things that weren’t maybe the most ethical…I think I was a little snotty and spoiled.”
She is true to the idea of changing and growing partially because of her own transformations throughout her life.
“My ethics and morals came actually very late,” she says. They came in the form of a role model, a fellow teacher in New Jersey, Irene Pato. “She wasn’t a Pollyanna, but she didn’t have anything bad to say about anyone…she’d see it from their side, she’s just a good soul, a good human being, so she’s my role model for that,” says Dadmehr, citing the woman who changed her moral composition.
Although she changed later in life, the “snotty, spoiled” person that she claims she once was would be totally unrecognizable to the people who know her now.
“She just has a really great perception on life in general. I think most people can tell, she’s a very positive person and she’s a very optimistic person, and she just has a way of seeing things that is not the same way that I do, which I appreciate,” says Lakshmanan.
And although she has a Ph.D., and, according to High School Principal Kris Waugh, is a genius on par with Picasso, she never lets her intelligence and expertise cloud her personality.
“She’s humorous and she’s funny and she’s self deprecating, and even though she’s uber freakin’ smart, you don’t feel like she’s being condescending,” Lakshmanan continues.
The philosophy of eternal growth and change weaves in and out of most elements of Dadmehr’s life. Just a few weeks into her time at Ann Richards, she was handed a chance to grow.
“I didn’t know engineering at all. When I got hired to work here, they’re like, ‘How do you feel about going to a PLTW summer thing to teach engineering?’…And now I’m glad that happened.”
This spirit of exploration paired with not having a exact road map of what to do and how to do it defines Dadmehr as a teacher and a person.
She believes that, in order to be a good teacher, “You have to be willing to not just get stuff handed to you…you have to figure it out and see what works for your kids.”
In her own classes, she teaches this very skill: discovery.
“She questions students really well,” says Lakshmanan. “Especially with math, that’s really important. You want to lead your student to the answer by constantly asking questions, which she does a really good job of.”
“You kind of have to experience Ms. Dadmehr to understand that,” says Waugh. “She’s not just going to swoop in and save you, necessarily. She’s gonna make you think, and in the end, you’ll really appreciate her for making you do all the work, but making you also understand.”
Discovery is not the only method Dadmehr uses to simplify and help students understand subjects like limits and microchips.
According to Lakshmanan, “Her deep knowledge of geometry makes her very spatial and visual, so she can meet a kid’s needs in a lot of different ways and is able to explain things in a lot of different ways and she has some of the best analogies.”
Dadmehr’s classes are full of hand motions, “math tools” (pieces of spaghetti), analogies about spitting in peoples’ coffee cups and cowpokes, cartoon cyclopses–wild and creative strategies that humanize math and engineering.
Meanwhile, her own life is filled to the brim with creativity and discovery.
“I think I’m the ADD of hobbies,” she says.
Aside from immersing herself in hobbies ranging from quilting to knitting to guitar to harmonica, Dadmehr is a student herself.
“I take Spanish. I’m going to become fluent… Mr. Ruiz, watch out.”
She also used to take a weekly art class, and is about to enter her first workshop in book art.
Dadmehr takes classes like this because being a student is “just fun” and it puts her in the student’s position again.
“I’m a little more patient [because of these classes] and a little more understanding of people who are learning…because it’s not a race.”
And in Ms. Dadmehr’s class, it truly isn’t a race. This doesn’t just apply to test corrections, or retaking a timed quiz. It is in everything she does–in how she assumes the best in the people around her, in how she pauses to explain each concept innumerable ways until each student understands, in the token of wisdom passed down to her from a teaching mentor:
“You’re not teaching math, you’re teaching humans.”