Danny Corliss has had students tell him they hate math before they even tell him their names. And it’s not unusual for a math teacher to be the least-liked person on campus. Corliss even has a tattoo that spells out "NERD," for his four sons, Noah, Evan, Reve and Dain.
But at Albany Options School, he’s got a seat at the cool kids’ table.
Corliss teaches computer programming, a digital media class and financial algebra. He's also the head of the leadership class and coaches the chess team.
“When I’m doing scheduling, I know 100% a student will be successful in his class,” said school counselor Anna Harryman. “In a school our size you don’t know if a student will click with a teacher’s personality, but with him, I know it’ll be fine.”
A Corvallis native, Corliss didn’t start out wanting to be a teacher. After attending Oregon State University straight out of high school and majoring in computer technology, he realized it wasn’t for him.
“I dropped out,” he said. “I took a few years to figure out what I wanted to do, but when I was in college, I always tutored people in math and the people I tutored would say, ‘I wish my teacher would have explained it that way.’”
After a return to college and a master’s degree, Corliss found himself in the classroom and in the waning days of summer, he’s preparing for the start of his seventh year at AOS — the city’s alternative high school which garners unwarranted preconceptions.
“When I got the job I had friends wondering if I was going to get stabbed,” he said. “It wasn’t on my mind, especially after I met the kids. It’s assumed to be the bad-kid school, but the reality is these kids have obstacles and we give them a different way of looking at it.”
Corliss carries that sentiment into his classroom, where he often meets students with their own preconceived notions about math — mostly that they hate it and can’t do it and would be perfectly happy if it didn’t exist.
For Corliss, the job can get heavy — taking on students’ emotional baggage in the worst case and saying goodbye to students as they move on and graduate in the best case. But the moments that remind him he’s where he’s supposed to be come daily.
“Every term I have at least one student who says they hate math but I tell them if they can feel reasonably capable, that’s a step,” he said. “To see them come in no matter their background, to come together and say at least we can do this, that’s it for me.”
He wants his students to be able to make sense of numbers when they go out into the world. And when they come back, that’s even better.
“I had a student who walked in and said he had never liked a math teacher and I said, ‘OK, challenge accepted,’” he said. “He got his GED and went into the Army and wrote a letter to the school, naming me specifically, and he called once and we talked for like half an hour.”
It’s those connections that have kept Corliss at AOS.
“I took the job because it was a job,” he said. “About two weeks in and I knew I’d be here the rest of my life.”
In his previous job teaching high school math, he had 35 students in the room, but the same five kept his attention.
“It’s the kids in the back with the hat over their eyes that you just can’t get to, and when I do get to them, it’s been two weeks since we’ve had a real connection, so they aren’t interested,” Corliss said.
At AOS, classes are kept at 16 students.
“Now in my classroom, a lot of times, it is those five students I couldn’t get to, and now I can give them all of my energy," Corliss said. "The connection is huge.”