An innovative leader

Math teacher uses creative ideas (like having a math dog) to earn SHS Teacher of the year

Math teacher Mary Wheeler knew the wedding that she wanted. It had to be on April 3, 2021, and it had to begin precisely at 12:34 p.m. (Think 4321-1234). She wanted it to be casual, and she wanted it small.
COVID-19 put a dent in that plan.
The pandemic meant even the small wedding she had in mind would be too big. Several friends would have to be left off the guest list.
So, Wheeler turned to technology, which has been a common theme this year.
She decided to hold a Google Meet for several more friends and families, doubling the size of those who could “attend” the wedding.
“I’ve always been like, ‘Identify the problem and come up with the solution…,’” Wheeler said. “And I think this was a good compromise.”
Wheeler has been able to use that type of innovation and problem solving ability in her classroom as well, and those attributes have led her to be recognized as the 2020-2021 Teacher of the Year for SHS.
Principal Brian Knight has supervised her classroom a few times and noticed she engages her students quite well, instead of teaching the content quickly and moving on.
As a leader, he wants the students not to just solve problems but to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, something that Wheeler has been passionate about.
Knight also says that Wheeler is a great leader. Co-chair of the math department, she always tries her best to investigate better ways to engage students.
“You see tons of innovative-type things that she is willing to try and do in her classroom… If you didn’t ever go in there and spend time, you probably wouldn’t know since she isn’t the one to brag about what she does,” Knight said.
Wheeler became one of the first teachers to use the flipped classroom method.
She has pushed math teachers to utilize the flipped classroom and tools such as Desmos more often than ever since she became a teacher at SHS.
In a flipped classroom, a video of the math lesson is posted beforehand so students are able to access it before and after school. She tries to keep the video short so students are less reluctant to watch them.
“If they wanna watch them, I encourage that,” Wheeler said. “It makes it so much easier for both me and them when they do.”
One of the positives of this method, she says, is that students are able to know what is going on ahead of time, and have questions ready before class.
In addition to pre-recorded math lessons, Wheeler has also used tools like Edpuzzle to create videos that include English as well as other languages. With these additions, a student in her classroom who does not understand English would be able to understand the subject.
She was also one of the first teachers to use Canvas after the district first got it because she saw the potential to improve classroom organization.
A chapter could be divided into subsections and work could be separated for each class. Unlike the program she used before, My Big Campus, in which sections were organized together and students could see the different lessons.
Because of this, she did not have the learning curve most teachers went through to learn Canvas during the pandemic. She was a source of help if a teacher was confused.
In previous years, Wheeler planned projects for each chapter she taught which led to four projects per semester. Many hands-on activities were included.
One such project was when students created character designs in Desmos, an online math aid, with equations and graphing skills learned in class.
“It is one thing to do it on paper and picture it in your head,” Wheeler said, “but to be able to actually see it happening, I think it makes a bigger impression.”
Though there have been a lack of projects due to COVID-19, she still found a way to incorporate at least four projects into the curriculum this year.
She also does stations every few days, where one station may have an Edpuzzle and another station with arts and crafts.
Jack Williams, co-chair of the math department alongside Wheeler, has known her for 14 years.
Having worked together with her, he knows that if any student has questions about content, she is willing to work with that student until they understand.
He says Wheeler often leads teachers to try new things and she is one of the few teachers to have really advocated for the use of Desmos in the classroom.
“There are probably (few) people that put more time into content preparation than she does, just cause she’s always trying new things…,” Williams said. “She is a good listening ear to any student.”

Mary Wheeler helps her Algebra I students prepare for their final on May 24. Wheeler has been recognized as the 2020-2021 teacher of the year. (Emma Main)

Junior Britney Martinez-Posadas is a student who struggled with Precalculus during the first semester, but after joining Wheeler’s class, she started to find the subject easy. This was due to being able to have the one-on-one time with her, and seeing her more often due to the schedule change.
“We created a relationship where I would feel safe to ask her questions and she would help,” Martinez-Posadas said.
Before becoming a teacher, Wheeler studied at Purdue University to be a metallurgical engineer. Her family and friends agreed it would be a great career for her to follow and she would be able to earn good money.
She did work as an engineer for seven years but the lack of hands-on work after being promoted caused Wheeler to leave the profession in 2002. Teaching had always been in the back of her mind, and she already enjoyed tutoring her friends in high school, so she decided to become a teacher.
She worked at George Washington Community School for three years in the Indianapolis Public School district and has spent the last 14 years at SHS.
When she joined SHS, she appreciated that the administration was supportive of the teachers and that the staff knew what they were doing and enjoyed their work.
Wheeler says she likes working with people of all ages, but high school students take a special place in her heart. She considers high school a place where aspects of being a kid intertwine with adulthood. She is able to have serious conversations but also have fun.
“Being able to take a subject I love… and take that knowledge and help students get the same love and understanding is really a fun thing to do,” Wheeler said.
She grew up using problem-solving skills during games like cards with her family. Hanging out with her older brother helped hone this skill because she wished to outsmart him during the games.
These factors led her to create the innovative ideas that will best help her students be engaged and understand what they are learning in the classroom.
English teacher Sam Hanley, a friend of 14 years, next door neighbor and officiant for Wheeler’s wedding, views her as an amazing teacher. He says that she is willing to overcome any obstacle when it comes to helping a student and her personality makes them comfortable.
“You can tell she is somebody who likes a challenge and wasn’t ever gonna complain about what her kids could or couldn’t do,” Hanley said.
Wheeler says she was more lenient on grades this year and adjusted her classroom to be physically comfortable. One way she did this was placing couches in her room to add onto the laid back atmosphere.
She says she understands that math isn’t as important as the students’ well-being and provides a lending ear to her students. She pushed deadlines back if needed and allowed the students room to clear their thoughts.
“I think a lot of times there is anxiety when it comes to math and students don’t enjoy going into a math classroom,” Wheeler said. “I try to take that anxiety away.”
Senior Aayushi Zaveri met her during math lab after she recently came back from India as a junior. She says she felt comfortable because of Wheeler’s “jolly” personality and appreciates how she wanted to get to know her first before diving into the work and teaching her.
After spending time with her, Zaveri started to open up. She found that the projects and stations helped her with communication skills, which helped her make new friends and think faster when solving problems.
“I have a good connection with her,” Zaveri said. “She’s just amazing… Her relationship with the class is really nice.”
Wheeler says one of her favorite memories was during all virtual school, when she brought her calm and quiet border collie lab, Ellie, into the school. She’s considered the official math dog of SHS.
But due to COVID-19 and the scheduling, she felt as if she could not bond with her students like in previous years but tried her best to create that connection despite the obstacles.
“I never see them nearly as often…,” Wheeler said. “It’s really hard to get that connection and get to know them on a personal level versus just an academic level.”
Regardless, she pushes her students to think. One of her goals is for her students to embrace problem solving in math.
She hopes to connect with her students better next year and wishes to continue to use ideas from this year onto the next.
“My goal every year is to be better than I was the previous year,” Wheeler said.