Math Teacher, Cedarbrook Middle School
In 2015, Emily Towey arrived in South Carolina’s Low Country to teach secondary mathematics at Colleton County High School as a Teach For America South Carolina (TFASC) corps member.
She entered a tradition.
Graduating students gave favorite teachers their senior photos to post in the classroom. At the end of Towey’s first year, she had “about a dozen photos,” she said.
Four years later, her classroom wall held hundreds of photos. Students smiled proudly in graduation robes, sports gear, street clothes, beach sandals, and every look imaginable.
“Teachers don’t only teach, they learn,” Towey explained. “And I learned to be part of this community.”
“I’m from the urban Northeast,” she said. “So, I had to learn to value the goodness of a rural school and community. I wouldn’t have realized it without living in Colleton County. Everybody knows everybody here. You always feel support, like someone’s looking out for you no matter what you’re doing. I feel like I have a lot of South Carolina aunts, sisters, uncles, and brothers.”
If Towey fell in love with Colleton County High School, the same can be said of the school falling for her.
One graduate wrote, “The pictures of every student you had on the wall makes the difference to so many people. Whether troubled, poor, rich, Black, white, religious, non-religious, handicapped – whatever – you were able to make a connection with students like never before.”
Another student wrote, “You cared about students when they didn’t even care for what they were doing in life. Literally, there are students whose lives depended on you taking the extra step just to care.”
In 2019, Towey moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to teach math in a school just 10 minutes from her family home. She said it was hard to leave the success she felt building in Colleton County. (Towey was honored as Teacher of the Year 2018-2019, Rookie Teacher of the Year 2015-2016, and Teacher of the Month three times.) Still, she remains just a text away from her former colleagues and students.
“The lived experiences of those students brought its own lessons through the doors of my classroom,” she said.
“I quickly had to develop a different lens to understand what students faced,” Towey said. “This part of the state has lots of poverty. There is gun violence. The impact of what happens away from school is much more than what you see on a surface level. My TFASC training helped me through. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to handle some situations the way I did.”
One spring break weekend, a freshman male in her class lost his big sister, a senior at the school, to gun violence. Towey’s consolation and care after he returned to class made a difference.
“Three days later,” she said, “he wrote me a rap song to thank me for getting him through.”
Her math class became popular as Towey made math as real as the real world around her students.
They built rockets. Towey’s students Skyped a rocket scientist for advice, then launched their creations. Their math assignment? Graph as parabolas the motion of rockets rising and falling.
That kind of practical engagement woke young minds. Every year, test scores rose.
“A lot of kids came into my class with a super stigma – I can’t do math. I’m no good at math,” she said. “But my TFASC training gave me a lens on building confidence. We saw kids coming into class so excited, no matter what was happening outside.”
One student entered algebra at a third-grade math level. Towey took on the challenge.
“We never gave up,” she said. “And when the day came that I let her know she had passed the class, you could just see it in her eyes – I can take on the world! I can do anything!”
Towey helps her students believe in themselves.
The proof – with hundreds of faces – hangs right there on her classroom wall.