Sam Cross spent much of his childhood poring over the sports section of the newspaper and religiously watching ESPN, taking in all the standings and statistics. He was captivated by the everchanging numbers.
“My mom was always telling me I watched way too much ‘Sports Center’ as a kid,” Cross recalled. “It was a total obsession of mine.”
That obsession would lead Cross to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in statistics and take a position in the data science field before coming to the University of Missouri–St. Louis to make a career change.
This weekend, Cross will graduate from the College of Education’s innovative Teach in 12 program, which allows post-bachelor’s students interested in teaching to earn their certification in 12 to 15 months.
Cross was already well versed in many mathematical concepts due to his background in economics and statistics, and the program quickly got him up to speed on lesson plans, classroom management and pedagogy. It’s been useful as he’s started his first full-time education job as a math teacher at Northwest High School in Cedar Hill, Missouri.
Growing up in Springfield, Illinois, Cross was surrounded by educators. However, he didn’t immediately follow in his family’s footsteps.
“My mom is a retired teacher,” he said. “She was a physical education teacher for both high school and then elementary school for the last eight years or so of her career. Her sister, my aunt, is also a retired teacher, and then their dad, my grandpa, was a teacher as well. I had a decent amount of education in the family and was exposed to that growing up, so I always thought it would be something I’d be somewhat interested in. But it was a path I didn’t explore, at least at first.”
Cross enrolled at the University of Missouri–Columbia with the intention of studying engineering. Things didn’t quite go according to plan, though. Despite being a strong student in high school, Cross found that his approach to classwork didn’t translate to college.
“Up until that point in my life, I did not figure out how to do school effectively,” he said. “I had been able to coast through school a lot in my life and just not have to study. Then, new to college, that all changes. Most people can’t just coast through anymore. So, I really struggled.”
The experience led him to switch his major to economics, with a minor in statistics. After adjusting his study habits, he latched onto his statistics courses and rekindled his passion for the subject.
That passion motivated Cross to enter a master’s program in statistics at Bowling Green State University after completing his bachelor’s degree. The program exposed Cross to a breadth of mathematical concepts and theories and also provided his first taste of teaching as a TA and calculus tutor.
After graduating in 2019, Cross moved to St. Louis to work as a data analyst with Centene. But he found the work unsatisfying.
“I was in the corporate world for two and a half years and just decided I wasn’t feeling fulfilled with that life,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t do it long-term. It was the fall of 2021 when I started to think about what I could do besides this with my background. That was what started that exploration of where I could go from there.”
Teaching was the first thing that came to mind. Cross began to research programs in the area that would allow him to get certified without requiring an additional bachelor’s degree, and he found Teach in 12 at UMSL.
The College of Education was immediately a welcoming environment. Cross said Ellen Duncan, director of advising, was always available to answer questions and troubleshoot any issues. He also commended Jerie Rhode and Luann Domek, clinical educators who oversaw his work in the classroom, for their support and practical feedback.
The Teach in 12 program is designed to be completed in three semesters, with students entering the classroom by the second semester. Cross enjoyed the accelerated timeline and the ability to gain hands-on experience so quickly. His first classroom assignment was at Affton High School, where he taught math for two days a week.
“Even just doing two days a week for a full semester, I could feel the confidence grow across the semester and I felt like my skills developed,” Cross said. “It was really funny to look back at the first few lessons I did and then by the end of the semester, I was like, ‘Wow, I was a long ways away from where I am now.’”
Cross learned quickly that connecting with his students on a personal level was incredibly important to delivering his lessons.
“You have to develop the relationships with them and show them that you have an interest in them as a person and you don’t just see them as a butt in a seat in your classroom,” he explained. “If you don’t have their respect, they’re not going to ever really take what you say seriously.”
Between his semester at Affton High School and current full-time position at Northwest High School, which is possible through a provisional certification, he’s also learned to adjust his presence in the classroom to aid classroom management.
Cross tries to move throughout the room as he goes through his lessons, and he often crouches or sits next to students who need help with assignments.
“It seems small, but I think it does make them feel more comfortable, showing that, ‘Hey, I’m next to you here, we’re driving the train together, we’re on the same team,’” he said. “I try to do that fairly often – as much as I can. Hopefully, to let the students see that I’m on their side. I want them to do well.”
The approach is particularly impactful teaching algebra and geometry, subjects of which many students are inherently apprehensive. Cross noted that some of his students have had negative experiences with math in the past, but he tries to make things less intimidating by breaking down problems into digestible parts and setting realistic expectations.
“The thing you have to do is realize that getting it wrong the first time is fine,” Cross said. “It’s actually expected that you’re not going to get it right away. That’s how you will learn, getting a problem wrong, realizing why you did it wrong and then going forward and learning from that.”
After graduation, Cross will continue working full-time at Northwest for the rest of the school year. He’s happy that he chose to change career paths and that UMSL was able to help him do it efficiently.
“It’s been a long journey, even though the program is short,” Cross said. “It’s crazy to look back over two years ago when I decided to explore other career options. It’s wild to think I’ve gone all the way through and now there’s a week left.”