Cuong Ta, aka Mr. Ta, Math Teacher (Top Left) – Interview Conducted by Celia Lehmann Duke and Nora Wagner
Friday September 11, 2020: It is 3:45pm — A weekend ahead of schedule! Three days of bad air, but birds are chirping nonetheless (we think- we were actually inside so, upon reflection, we have realized that we can’t really attest to that). The mood is light, the company is top-notch, and the Human of CPS makes small talk as we anticipate the beginning of the year’s fourth interview. I click record. “Welcome, Mr. Ta.” The interview has begun…
Nora: What made you decide to teach math? Did you know that you wanted to teach math when you were younger?
Mr. Ta: I’ve always loved math! When I entered Cal, I was actually a Physics major, so I was on the honors track for a couple of years. I did a lot of math then, and did a lot of tutoring in Oakland Chinatown in my spare time. But it was when I was in graduate school, in Public Policy, that I had my first section of students; I was a TA for a calculus course for the program. I really loved the whole experience of teaching that year and ended up looking for a teaching position soon after.
Celia: We heard at Assembly that you really like to do pottery! What are some of your favorite things about pottery, and the favorite pieces you’ve made?
Mr. Ta: Let’s see…well, when I started doing pottery, the experience of learning it was quite a spiritual process. When I started throwing, it felt like I had already known how to do it and I was being reminded. There was almost a connection to a past life. I’d never been on the wheel before, but when I did it, it was like rediscovering something that I’d known and loved. There’s a strong connection to what you’re making as you’re making it.
I really love that, but I also work using slabs. That way of working is much more deliberate, so there are pieces that I plan ahead of time. For example, there are some pieces I do that are evocative of gateways. To me, these pieces represent the duality of who we are now, and who we become after. I created this one piece for my friend who was near passing, and it’s this gateway with an image of a guardian. She’d always had this image of her guardian spirit being a bird, so I had put this image on it. Just as a guardian for her journey on to her next life. So, that’s something that’s really meaningful to me.
Nora: Besides pottery, what else do you like to do outside of teaching?
Mr. Ta: Wow, let’s see. Reading. Cooking. I mean, these days teaching on Zoom just takes so much more time, prepping wise, so my days seem to be either working on classes, or working in my studio.
Celia: Is there something you’re most looking forward to teaching this year?
Mr. Ta: Well, it’s more about the way we set up the learning space for math here at CPS. You both know how math classes work here. It’s all about group work, helping each other through the problem sets. That’s what I’m looking forward to actually, that ability to collaborate, and problem solve together. I think math can be a very social practice, and we don’t get to do that now. It’s really hard to do that on Zoom, because a lot of the time it feels like I’m the presenter, and you’re the audience. It’s how Zoom works, but I’d really like to be back in a time and place where we can sit in a group, and work through math problems together.
Nora: Could you elaborate on what it’s like teaching at College Prep in comparison to other schools?
Mr. Ta: I have to say that so far, I have been so impressed with the fact that students show such deep passions for issues of social justice. They’re also empowered to be leaders and they take that responsibility on. I feel that way about my colleagues, the teachers, as well. Everyone is really passionate about their interests, and they want to share them, with the students, and with each other. I really love this culture where we encourage students to follow their passions and explore new ones, and where adults model for students, and give them permission to take leadership. I think that’s something very different from other schools.
Celia: Did you have a teacher growing up that inspired you to teach, or a really influential person?
Mr. Ta: Lots of them! Gosh, let’s see… I have few teachers that didn’t inspire me. I think I was inspired by all my teachers. Not just because they were smart, but because they were really important people in my life. They were people who I looked up to and wanted to be.
Nora: Have you discovered any new hobbies or interests during quarantine?
Mr. Ta: I’ve been doing a lot of cooking. I stayed away from baking bread for the longest time because everyone was doing it. All the grocery stores had run out of flour anyway. But I finally did bake a couple of loaves! And, surprisingly, they turned out pretty well.