Leadership in the Classroom: Ms. Tucker Uses Math to Inspire Curious Leaders

For Upper School math teacher Rachel Tucker, there is more than one way to be a leader.

Western society associates leadership with social activists and politicians, she says, but leadership can come from a quieter place as well. To Ms. Tucker, it’s a way of life that’s grounded in empathy, curiosity, and authenticity. "It's people knowing what they want and having a purpose in the world and being able to take action. Choosing to live a slower life and a more reflective life is also a version of leadership,” she explains.

Math teacher Rachel Tucker guides Upper School student projects.

Ms. Tucker exemplifies those values for her students. She recognizes that high school can feel like a high-stakes environment—with its academic and co-curricular goals and college on the horizon. She tries to meet students where they are and sometimes offers flexibility with deadlines if circumstances call for it. “There is a lot of stress around work, and you strive for perfectionism,” she explains. “I try to combat that by having very open dialogues with students.”

Ms. Tucker’s own leadership inspiration comes from her mother, a mechanical engineer who was one of the few female engineering students at Cornell University at the time. “She always emphasized her work ethic and enjoyed that level of problem solving,” reflects Ms. Tucker. “She ultimately chose to be a stay-at-home mom, but that was always a part of her identity.”

The values of empathy and curiosity are also built into Ms. Tucker’s curriculum. For a project in her statistics class, Ms. Tucker has students pick out a real-world issue they’re curious about and perform in-depth statistical analysis. In small groups, students research what’s been said and measured about their topic, then use over 1,000 data points to learn more with the help of histograms, scatter plots, and significance testing. Their topics run the gamut of social and political issues, but they all have something in common. “A lot of these students are looking at things that impacted them in some way and impact others,” she remarks. “They get to pick something that they’re curious about and dig into it.” 

Whether teaching statistics or calculus concepts to students, Ms. Tucker incorporates leadership through empathy into her lessons.

Some project examples include evaluating the performance of sports teams based on whether they play at home or away, whether race and ethnicity impact homelessness in San Francisco, and the way assumptions can affect our perceptions. 

“We have a lot of stereotypes, and they wanted to investigate how accurate and inaccurate they are,” explains Ms. Tucker. “The students are working to build empathy.” The research process, she says, teaches students to understand the limitations of real-world data and to be careful when drawing conclusions without facts. 

The values of empathy and curiosity are also built into Ms. Tucker’s Intro to Calculus class. Students are tasked with investigating a problem and developing a solution. There’s a catch, though. They only get one point for the right answer. The rest of the points get awarded for the way they approach the problem and communicate their process.

Ultimately, for Ms. Tucker, leadership can begin with the way we lead our own lives, whether it’s being a good friend, taking a pause when we need it, or not trying to do everything perfectly at the same time. She explains, “I try to model that in myself, and I try to communicate that as a value.”