One day this school year, the students in Kelsey Anselmi’s eighth grade math class took a bunch of rubber bands and some Barbie dolls to the metal bleachers behind the school for a lesson.
Anselmi, in her fifth year teaching but new to Crestdale Middle School in the south Charlotte suburbs, wanted to help her students understand linear regressions. So they worked together to figure out how Barbie could successfully bungee jump off of the bleachers. The lesson plan was a hit. “The kids had no idea they were doing math,” Anselmi says. “They thought they were just launching Barbie.”
Not only were the students learning about math—how to calculate linear regressions—but how to apply that skill in the real world. “There are actual jobs that require this,” Anselmi told them.
Anselmi, 27 and a native of Kansas, laughs as she tells me about the activity, and her passion for her students is obvious. “I’m a relationship builder first and then a math teacher,” she says. That desire to positively influence others is what led her into teaching in the first place—and it is also what nearly led her to quit.
After graduating from Benedictine College in 2013, Anselmi started her career in her home state. “My heart was set on it,” she says of teaching. “I knew from an early age that this is what I was supposed to do with my life.”
A year later, though, she “was feeling super millennial” and—on a whim—moved to Myrtle Beach. (“They don’t have beaches in Kansas,” she offers as an explanation.) The experience there was challenging, with little support from her colleagues and supervisors. One evaluation consisted of a sole piece of advice: Don’t chew gum while lecturing. “My wanderlust kind of bit me in the butt,” Anselmi says. “I was devastated. I kept having these bad spells when I wasn’t getting the nutrition I needed for my soul.
“I was just over it.”
After two years in Myrtle Beach, she changed schools again—this time to Forest Hills High School in the Union County town of Marshville. “I actually told myself going into Forest Hills that this would probably be my last year teaching and I was going to figure out something else to do. I wasn’t happy anymore.”
But at the school, she met a more experienced teacher, Lauren Baucom, who agreed to be Anselmi’s mentor. “She saw something in me, but I don’t know what because I was down in the dumps, depressed, desperate for a job.” Baucom challenged Anselmi to think about her own attitude, to reignite her own love for teaching. “She started to grab some of that passion out of me,” Anselmi recalls. “She saved my career.”
Around the time Anselmi earned an opportunity to move to Crestdale Middle at the beginning of the current school year, she stumbled upon a book while scrolling through Amazon one night. The book, Mathematical Mindsets, had a profound effect on her. “It fed my soul. It kind of challenged me in the way that I’d been craving all these years.”
Reinvested in her profession, Anselmi started having more fun in the classroom. Her enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious, something that’s tough to achieve with a group of teenagers unimpressed by math problems.
“In order for the kids to understand these things—I mean, truly understand them—you have to make it fun, you have to put it in perspective for them,” Anselmi says. “Otherwise it’s going to be boring and monotonous.”
She deepend her connections outside of the classroom, too, signing on to coach the school’s girls basketball and track teams. Anselmi shared her journey in a TED-style “Teacher Talk” hosted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Foundation this spring, shortly before she finished her master’s degree in school administration. But Anselmi is not ready to leave the classroom. There are still many more students to teach—and Barbies to bungee jump.
“I know it sounds corny,” she says, “but I really want to change the world.”
Note: Kelsey Anselmi was nominated by fellow educator Justin Parmenter.