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Bon élève! Teacher Chrystal Smith's passion for language leads her to STEM class

By Natalie Neumann Butler

 

 

When Chrystal Smith (MT '19) realized her community at the Boys and Girls Club needed help in math, she quickly completed an additional qualification to start teaching them. 

As a skilled French teacher, Chrystal always had an interest in language. She often goes the extra mile to make her classes high-energy and fun-filled. But the 2020 pandemic led her on a different path – to STEM education.

She joined the local children's club to establish online tutoring and teaching three times a week. The program, coming to an end with a math refresher session this summer, was highly successful. 

This fall, Chrystal will hone her STEM teaching skills for Grades 3-7 at The Maker Bean – a place for students to take math, science and technology workshops – while she teaches at the TDSB in both math and French.

With a PhD program under the tutelage of OISE prof. Mary Reid in her future, Chrystal says she feels "very much at peace" with her new direction in education.


Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to become a teacher? You often seem 'at the ready' to address your students' needs.

In 2016, I had just finished a contract as an administrator at a private elementary school. During my time at the school, the young children would ask me to teach them French and Spanish. I did my best to help them with their vocabulary and grammar – and it was only after I left did I realize that my language skills were needed among elementary students. I talked it over with my mother and sister and they encouraged me to go back to school.

The next year, I began teaching privately and, by the fall, I had enrolled in the teaching program at OISE. I remember walking up to the office on the 11th floor and speaking with a staff member for advice. I was petrified of the thought of returning to school full-time and not finding work in downtown Toronto.

But by the time September rolled around, I had a plan to apply for bursaries and I was offered some on-campus work. I felt proud to be studying at one of the best institutions for teaching in Ontario and even prouder to learn that I would be welcomed into the Master of Teaching program.

It was fall 2019 when I signed my first contract with TDSB. I remember bowing my knees in prayer that morning and saying "thank you for choosing me."

 

Did you always have roots in the French language? When did math education peak your interest? 

I studied foreign languages in high school and began learning French at the age of 12. I learned Spanish at the same time. Spanish was a lot easier for me but I persevered in French because I had a great teacher who inspired me to keep trying, as I was by no means the best student in the class.

My interest in math education came before OISE when I was tutoring math at the Grade 8 and 9 level. I had a wonderful student and together we would work through her math problems. I stumbled through most of it but she was always gracious. If I made a mistake we would just laugh it off and keep working!

When I got to OISE and had not one but two math courses, I had no idea that I would do well. When I got excellent final marks I kept boasting to my friends and family. I was supposed to be a French teacher, not a math teacher!

 

French language educator Chrystal Smith helps viewers on the OISE Stay At Home Club web series complete a self-affirming exercise, while improving pronunciation of mots-amis or word friends (cognates) in French!

 

Where is your community and how important is it for you to stay connected to the young learners there? 

Living in downtown Toronto, it's a bit challenging to find a community so I leaned on my community at OISE.

I worked as treasurer for the student union. I was such a workaholic that one day the vice president forbade me from coming into the office as it was a holiday. But that did not deter me from lending a hand. I walked around my neighbourhood looking for something to do! That's when I discovered a community club for children, just up the street from me.

I walked in, right off the street, and asked if they needed any help. The young woman in charge asked me if I could tutor the students and I said "yes!" My job first began as someone to offer extra homework help but with the onset of the pandemic, it turned into a full evening teaching job.

After talking about how much the children of my community risk losing in terms of their education – with them not being present at school due to COVID, and some not even having devices – one of the Boys and Girls Club administrators and I came up with the idea of creating an online school.

I started teaching online sessions the same day schools reopened virtually in Ontario and have been going ever since. I recently finished 5 weeks for the summer – a shorter term to help students with Zoom burnout. It was inconceivable to think that the online program would help as much as it did, but the majority of the class was there for every session. It has been an inspiring experience for me as an educator.

That's why I am thrilled to join science and technology teachers in my neighbourhood and use their fully-equipped space at The Maker Bean, a STEM learning hub, to offer in-person math tutoring. 

 

Why did you choose to get involved at The Maker Bean? 

It will be my first time working with The Maker Bean this fall. I have always believed in the importance of science and math and science was my favourite subject in elementary school. I am so happy to help expose my students to the wonderful STEM camps and activities that are held there. I intend for The Maker Bean team and I to continue working together to educate Toronto's students beyond the year.

 

You told us about your connection with your mentor Dr. Mary Reid. Are OISE PhD studies on the horizon?

Dr. Reid helped solidify the need for my skills as a math teacher in the public school system.

Her research opened my eyes to the importance of young women in math and her teaching helped me overcome my own math anxieties. During my MT degree, she was always there for me to discuss my future education and listened caringly to my questions and concerns about the program and my practicum.

It was not until after graduating that I decided to follow in her footsteps. I started by joining a Master of Arts program at OISE. Dr. Reid has always been my inspiration and hero. All my PhD friends tell me to be a little conservative with my grand ideas for changing the world with doctoral studies in math so I am a bit reserved when it comes to talking about it!

Right now, I am focused on finishing up the MA in math and statistics and then I hope to research changing mindsets or creating possibilities in math education for inner-city children.


Watch part 2 of Chrystal Smith's French lesson on OISE Stay At Home Club