By Jo Mathis
AAPS District News Editor
Ellen Banta says she first considered becoming a math teacher when she was in the ninth grade at Dearborn High School. Her math teacher was so stern that once when he caught her slouching, he kicked her legs so hard against the side of the desk that it dislocated her right knee.
“And I really felt there had to be a kinder, gentler way to teach math,” she says.
That helps explain the rug in her Pioneer High School math class, where students are invited to join her in lunch hour yoga or get up and stretch if they’re tense.
It’s why she may occasionally meet a student at the Ann Arbor District Library to take the test in a less anxiety-provoking environment, and why she’s happy to meet students before or after school when they need some extra help.
“I think those acts of kindness that we extend to each other allow us to decompress,” she says.
Banta says too many students today are anxious because they’re told they have to take so many AP classes in order to be considered by certain colleges, and if they don’t maintain a certain GPA, they won’t be able to get into the right school, and if they don’t get into the right school, they’re not going to be able to get a job.
“It becomes this ball of tension,” she says. “It’s horrible, what we’re doing to our kids.”
After earning a degree in math education at Michigan State University and a master’s degree in education with a concentration in special education at Eastern Michigan University.
Banta began teaching at Huron High School in 1983 and is now in her 15th year at Pioneer.
Surprisingly, her favorite subjects are actually history and psychology. But she knows she has the ability to take complex ideas and make them accessible to people who are trying to learn math.
“I’m teaching young people,” she says. “Secondarily, I’m teaching mathematics. As a community, we’re trying to educate them in how to be in this world.”
A pedometer Banta wore to school one week showed she walks six miles a day on the job, which she says is typical of a Pioneer math teacher.
“I don’t think people really recognize that this is live theater,” she says. “We do put on five shows a day for 180 days a year. Whether we are feeling good or not feeling good. Whether or not we have something going on in our lives. We really do come in and give the best darn shows we know how. I think people would be surprised that we don’t eat our lunch. We’re working with kids all through our lunch. We get here at 7 in the morning and we don’t leave most days til 4, 5, or 6:00 at night. There are times I leave here at 5:00 and I go straight to the library. From the time our little feet hit the building until we leave, we are go, go, go, interacting with people and doing things. And then frankly when we get home, we are doing lesson plans because while we’re here, we are working with kids and all that behind-the-scene stuff has to happen sometime.”
People would be surprised to realize how long it takes to grade homework and exams, she said.
“People look at teaching like, `Oh, they’re there five hours a day and they have summers off and they have all these breaks,’” says Banta. “Well, during most of our breaks, we’re trying to catch up on our sleep. We’re writing curriculum. We’re organizing materials. Some of us are even in these buildings during the breaks.”
She said she’d love for politicians to shadow any teacher for a day.
“This is not for the faint-of-hearted,” she said. “I feel this is a service industry and the client is the parent. I keep the client in mind. I’m here to serve that client: What do you need from this space to achieve whatever goal you have for your child? I do think sometimes we get lost in terms of who the client is.”
During a difficult moment with parents, she stops, takes a breath and asks herself: Why is this person acting this way?
“What you are talking about is the most precious item in that person’s life, and that’s their children,” she said. ““Keeping that in mind, you have to be gentle, because this is highly, highly important to them.”
The hardest part of the job is about calling a home about a problem and hearing crying on the other end.
“Because they don’t know what to do,” she says. “They know that there’s a problem, and they’re at wit’s end. And this has been going on a long time.
“It’s very hard. You think that if a teacher’s having challenges in the classroom, they can call home and everything’s going to be fixed. And no. No. It’s not a perfect world. Everybody has their story. So when you see a student who is underperforming, there’s a story behind that. And it can take a long time to dig it out and find out what’s really going on. But if we can’t do that, they’re not going to move forward.”
Jeannette James, a longtime friend and fellow Pioneer math teacher, jokes that if Ellen Banta doesn’t like you, there’s really something wrong with you.
“She never has a bad word to say about anybody,” says James. “She gives you many chances and always, the benefit of the doubt. Even when people aren’t kind to her, she still goes back and turns the other cheek.”
“She’s a quiet matriarch of her classroom. I call her my throwback hippie. She’s like a flower child; easy-going; very little ruffles her feathers, and if it does, she takes it in stride and keeps on moving.”
Indeed, Banta’s favorite greeting is: “Peace and love.”
Students exhibiting test anxiety can lead to a discussion about breathing and stretching and stress management.
“The kids like to get on the carpet and do some stretching,” says Banta, who welcomes any student who wants to do some lunchtime yoga with her.
Banta teaches five classes a day: three analysis classes and two recovery courses for those students who failed an earlier algebra class.
What about the student who doesn’t see the relevance of algebra?
“I tell them, `You may not use exactly what I teach you in this class, but what it does is make you trainable,’” she explains. “’The more you know about anything, the easier it is for me to access that knowledge and then use that knowledge to help you learn something else I do need you to know.’
“It’s often not until they get to calculus that they’re able to see the big picture.”
Teacher consultant Jane Nixon calls Banta a “master teacher, mentor and friend” who believes that every student can succeed. She says the culture of a Banta class is “calm, with bell-to-bell focus.”
“Teaching is a natural craft for Ellen,” says Nixon. “She brings out the best in her students because they know she is highly motivated and brings her very best every day … Ellen is an inspiration and makes a positive difference everyday at Pioneer.”
Senior Alexis Berry says there is an endless list of ways Banta is an “amazing” teacher.
“Ms. Banta’s level of dedication goes far beyond what anyone could expect of a teacher,” she says. “She really cares about her students. Ms. Banta has written recommendations for me, kept track of my school involvements and even met me at a coffee shop to proctor a test that I had missed in her class while I was ill.”
And student Grace Lindeman says Banta embodies what a teacher should be.
“Her unique style of teaching and enthusiasm made a challenging class something I look forward to every day,” she says, praising Banta’s empathy, genuine concern for each student’s well being, and interest in their extracurricular activities.
A huge hockey fan who used to bring a big brass school bell to games when she worked at Huron and rooted for the Rats, Banta attends more athletic events than some athletic directors. She does so partly so her students see her support and know she’s part of the community; not just a teacher in the classroom.
“That takes the relationship to a whole other level,” she said. “They’re willing to work harder for you than they ever believed they could.”
Banta recalls the time Huron was in the hockey playoffs in Flint. From the stands, she spotted some Huron kids walking around the arena, clearly looking for a fight with the other fans.
Banta intervened, walking slowly towards them.
“You’re going to get hurt, you know that?” the kids asked.
“I’m prepared for that,” she said. “Are you?”
They backed off.
“I go big or go home,” Banta says.
Banta would like to teach another four or five years—long enough to pay tuition for her son, Liam, a senior at Skyline whom she describes as one of the most empathetic souls on the planet. Liam plans to major in psychology at MSU.
After she retires, Banta says she’d had to re-invent herself, perhaps as a master gardener or Wildbird Rescue volunteer. She doubts she’d become a tutor only because she knows it would be hard to accept money from parents.
For now, she knows she can count on never a dull moment.
“You may get frustrated,” says Banta of her job. “You may get a burned out and you may get really tired. But you’re never bored. I do have to say that with the exception of a couple of days over the last 32 years, I wake up every morning and can’t wait to get to school. I love my job. I love working with these young people. They’re exciting.”