LAFAYETTE — As a young college student, Lerri Cockrell doubted whether teaching was the right future for her.
The same day she was assigned to visit a classroom to observe a teacher in action, Cockrell had set up a meeting with her adviser to change her major to computer science.
At 1 p.m., she walked into the classroom. The teacher handed her a lesson and told her to teach the class.
“The teacher handed me a weekly reader and said, go with it,” Cockrell said.
In disbelief and a bit of panic, she tried to explain that she wasn’t ready or prepared for a lesson.
“I said, ‘I’m a brand new student.’ (The teacher) told me, ‘You need to decide if this is for you or not.’ ”
Two hours later, Cockrell walked out of the classroom with her answer.
“I cancelled my appointment,” she said.
Now, 25 years later, the David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy teacher finds the same wonder in teaching math to youngsters.
Last month, she was recognized as Louisiana Association of Teachers of Mathematics’ middle school math teacher of the year. Another Lafayette Parish School System teacher, Angela Boxie, of Edgar Martin Middle, was a finalist for the honor.
Cockrell has been an educator for 25 years. She returned to the classroom two years ago after spending 10 years as a lead elementary math teacher, offering teachers professional development in the classroom. In that role, she’d also team-teach with teachers on lessons.
Cockrell said her teaching style is “purely problem-based instruction.”
“Every concept I teach is rooted in real life,” she said. “It doesn’t do any good for them to rattle off a bunch of answers if there’s no meaning in what they’ve done.”
When students learn the equation of a line and the meaning of slope, she asks them to design a bungee cord for a Barbie doll to make a leap off the roof of the school gym. Students must design and build their own rubber band bungee and use the height of the gym to plot the optimum bungee jump.
Once they’re done, Thibodaux principal Jeff Debetaz climbs atop the gym roof and sends the dolls on their journey.
While a fun exercise, it also shows students that math is “more than problems on a page,” Cockrell said.
The teacher has a knack for calming students’ anxiety about complex problems, seventh-grade students in her advanced math class said.
“We play games to help us understand what we’re learning in each unit,” said student Madalyn Pendergraft.
On the walls of her classroom are reminders of math concepts illustrated with common objects. Colorful drinking straws are fashioned into a hexagon, rhombus and octagon; a roll of wax paper is labeled as a rectangular prism and a can of Pringles is labeled as a cylinder.
The hours on a wall clock are replaced with mathematical problems denoting the correct number: “6x2” for 12 o’clock and the square root of 64 for 8 o’clock.
One bulletin board is filled with index cards with students’ hand-written, and in some cases illustrated, goals for the year: “Make honor roll all year” and “I will learn more difficult math so my life becomes easier.”
“I would describe her as a cool and fun teacher,” said Jason Carriere, another seventh-grade advanced math student. “When she teaches us, she tells jokes and she helps us.”
The advanced math students who pass her class receive credit for both seventh- and eighth-grade math and may take a ninth-grade level course for high school credit next year.
“I’m expecting 100 percent of them to pass,” Cockrell said.
Her math class isn’t just about numbers — but writing, as well. She requires her students to explain their answers in writing on tests and aloud during classroom exercises and games.
“A lot of times what I see is they don’t have a problem with the math, they have a problem with the language of the math,” she said.
The process of working through the steps of solving the problem also helps students identify their own mistakes, Cockrell said. It also assists her in identifying areas where students need more instruction, she said.
“I like them to see that the process is as important as the solution. I’d much rather the wrong answer with the right thinking then the right answer but they don’t know how they got there,” she said.
Twenty five years after her first foray at teaching, demystifying math for children still brings her joy, she said.
“It’s so much fun to see kids get excited about what they’re able to do, especially when they come in thinking math is boring or hard,” she said. “To see them come to life is very rewarding. It tickles me to death when they come back years later and thank you for what you’ve done when it’s really just a part of your job.”