At age 35, Jane Viau was climbing the corporate ladder, working on multimillion deals for a New York City investment bank. Then one day, feeling that her work had no meaning—she kept hearing the lyrics of a Talking Heads song, “How did I get here?”—she jumped off.
As she explains in her Ted-style talk at the Elevating and Celebrating Teachers and Teaching (ECET2) conference last month, she was raising funds for AIDS research and pondering her next career move when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, taking the lives of many people who worked in her industry. It was then she came to a life-changing decision: “I had to go into the trenches and do good work myself.”
A year later, Viau landed in Harlem teaching high school math, which she’s done ever since. “The difference now,” she told the audience at the second annual convening of Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers, “is that I care about my end product—I care about my students.”
Viau teaches content with a single-minded intensity, which moves her students to mastery. Her AP statistics students, for instance, have pass rates of 85 percent to 90 percent, with scores well above the national average of 2.8.
Viau’s students work as hard as she does; she insists on nothing less. They all sign a contract pledging to attend mandatory afterschool and Saturday sessions. She works with them not only on math but also on note-taking, test-taking strategies, and other study skills. They arrive with weak writing skills, and so she requires them to explain in clear sentences their approach to solving problems.
Viau also gets to know her students as people, attending their sporting events and extracurricular activities and listening to their often formidable personal problems. She’s taken to heart a commonly passed-along quote: “People don’t care how much you know until they know you care.”
At the beginning of the school year, students are prone to lash out at Viau and tell her to leave them alone. The key, she insists, is never to take anything personally and to never, ever, let them quit. “My mantra is persistence,” she said. “Even when the students don’t meet my expectations, I don’t lower them. I explain where we are and where we have to go. Eventually, they expect more of themselves and achieve more.”
At the conclusion of her speech, Viau unleashed a rap song that had her audience roaring with approval. The last line: “I used to make money. Now I make a difference.”