A little over a week ago, the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics held their annual state championship finals on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. For the first time since I left teaching mid-year during the 2014-15 school year, I was able to attend, having missed last year for a family engagement. What a joy to be back on the campus of my alma mater, the place where I first learned that satisfaction could be found in solving challenging mathematical problems, once again watching young people take their first steps into that same world of ideas, competing with their friends, making lifelong memories. There’s definitely a wide range of memories that hit me when I breathe that familiar air at Altgeld Hall, UIUC’s math building, from my days as an undergrad, studying with friends for exams to my days as a graduate student teaching calculus to my years as a math team coach, anxiously waiting in the hall for organizers to post results.
Though I’m not coaching a team any more, I spent nearly the entire day at the competition. I had the opportunity to reconnect with old colleagues, chat with other coaches, talk to students, and even solve a few math problems. While most of the events aren’t on display for the public, one of the highlights of the day was watching the junior-senior 2-person championship round. This is a very challenging competition, one that most teams put their best competitors on. While the preliminary round isn’t public, the finals are. I had the pleasure of watching a couple of former students compete in the finals, a round that only the top 4 teams from the prelims advance to.
As for the team competition, in the division I coached for many years, 2A, longtime powerhouse University of Chicago Lab School had moved up to 3AA (the odd class numbering system is 1A, 2A, 3AA, 4AA, where the number refers to the school size and the number of A’s refers to the difficulty of the tests taken). “UC-Lab” had won 8 of the 9 previous state titles, the lone blemish coming in 2012 when my own Morton High School students briefly dethroned them. Of course, their move to 3AA meant a new champion would be crowned this year. A familiar face took their place, Mahomet-Seymour, another downstate, public school which had been in the top 5 for many years, and did so in dominating fashion, winning by over 100 points in a competition where the winning score is typically around 800 points. Mahomet-Seymour joins Morton and Herrin as only the only non-Chicago-land schools to win the 2A title since ICTM went to its current competition format in 2001.
While the competition is always intense, the downtime at the state finals is just as sweet. Speaking with a student about their college plans, bumping into an alum who is now attending the University of Illinois, singing the ICTM State Math Team Contest Song, watching students throw a football around the quad, reading the silly math slogans on the various team shirts, they all bring back so many fond memories. I can honestly say that I have no regrets about leaving teaching for the corporate world, but there are a few things I miss about my former profession. At the top of that list is coaching the math team.