Stephanie Chen– plexar puzzler, color guard coordinator, cross-stitching sage and math master


CVHS Media

Post-Calculus teacher Stephanie Chen poses with her Astros teacher award which she was nominated for by her students.

There she was, a college student, sitting in her car after a night of drinking with some friends. One of them finds a calculus textbook in her car. Next thing you know, Stephanie Chen and her friend are solving advanced Calculus questions while completely drunk.

Since elementary school, post-Calculus teacher Chen has always been advanced in math. However, the earliest realization of her skill didn’t occur to her until a little later in her academic journey.

“I know that I jumped ahead a couple grades in math when I was in elementary school. I feel that middle school is when I was more cognizant of, ‘Oh, I just really enjoy this’ and want to keep pushing and finding more stuff. And so that’s when it kind of changed to something that was more interesting rather than something I was good at,” Chen said. 

Most who are extraordinarily skilled at something can often attribute their passion or ability to a role model or an anecdote. For Chen, that was her middle school geometry teacher.

“I would say that she was kind of like my model. Since then, I started to focus on getting into math teaching. So I feel like she’s definitely somebody who stands out in my memory as somebody who I really appreciated mathematically,” Chen said.

Chen spent her elementary school days in Georgia in a TAG—Talented and Gifted—Program. She could recall one of her fondest math memories as similar to something that many of the students at CVHS do—plexer puzzles. 

“They’d pull us out of classes and we’d do the little puzzles,” Chen said. “Plexers, the ones they were doing last year in SSEP or the little short ones, we’d sit and do a lot of them during those sections. And stuff like that. Anything specifically mathematical about them.”

Those who have taken one of her classes can always attest that there will be plenty of deriving equations. This is evidence of one of the things Chen loves most about math. She believes that it’s always better to know where a specific formula or rule comes from because it will make it easier to understand how to use them, rather than just applying them with no understanding.

“I really like deriving things, which is why I try to put a lot of that in my classes so people understand where it comes from, because what I don’t like is if there’s just a formula you’re applying [but] you don’t know where it comes from and why it works,” Chen said. “And so, I don’t really care for synthetic division because it’s just a ‘thing’ that I do, and I don’t have a full understanding of, ‘why?’… So anything that I can derive and really understand, why it’s working, and then be able to apply to other situations…those are the things that I tend to enjoy.”

Outside of the sphere of her academic life, Chen gave us some further insight into her current life outside of the classroom and what she enjoys doing. Coaching the color guard team at Bellaire High School is something Chen shared that she does in her free time and takes pride in. 

“So, color guard is the visual part of marching bands. We have the flags, rifles and sabers and during the winter season, it’s an indoor activity where we perform some dance routines. There’s, you know, the basics of spinning or tossing of like all the different equipment but there’s also, of course, the interlacing between that and all the dance and the motion and movement. So you’re putting that together. And it’s a worldwide activity,” Chen said. “Part of the stuff I do at color guard is dance-related, so I choreograph and write all their shows… I never did professional dancing, but that’s been something else I’ve enjoyed throughout my life and essentially, my hobby.” 

Along with this, Chen entertains herself with other enriching activities.

“Cross stitching, reading, games, puzzles. More recently, the last year or two I was invited to do puzzle hunts with some of the students here; Nathaniel [Barnett] and Ayushi [Mohanty], they invited me to do puzzle hunts with them. And so I’ve been doing that whenever those are available, and I love logic puzzles. I would spend so much time when I was in high school and middle school just doing logic puzzles half the time, so, yeah, I’ve always enjoyed puzzles,” Chen said.

She also mentioned an interesting phobia of hers that she can attribute to a “traumatizing” experience she had when she was younger:

“I’m afraid of balls being thrown at me, like coming at me, period. I had a “traumatizing experience” when I was little. And so I like if a ball is coming at me, I freak out—but at the same time, I do color guard because I coach color guard at Bellaire and those are like throwing flags, rifles, sabers in the air and catching them. With that, I’m good with that, but a ball coming at me, no way.”

Also outside of school, Chen spends a lot of her time with her son, which she states takes up most of her time. She is also gearing up for the birth of her next child. Other than that, she’s always keeping busy with her hobbies.

Chen describes being a math teacher as her “passion job.” Throughout her college life, she attended prestigious universities: John Hopkins and Rice University. Though she also majored in Psychology, a career in math was her main interest—that is what she ultimately pursued.

“So psychology was actually kind of added willie-nillie on the side because, although education doesn’t show up on my degree—that’s because Rice didn’t have an education major or minor, you had to major in what you did—so I actually did education along with it. And so it was really math and education that were the primaries, psychology was like, I know I want to add something else.” Chen said.

Another attribute of Chen’s life that many wouldn’t know about is her chronic struggle with mental health. She dug deeper into the unknown aspects of her life in an email she sent following her interview with Upstream News. In it, she was transparent about dealing with depression for a great portion of her life and how she continues to cope with them. 

“I think that people would be surprised to learn that I do and have battled depression for much of my life,” Chen wrote. “I don’t support guns in my household because… I’m concerned that having something around to so easily kill myself with would be a bad idea. That I have significant episodes of feeling worthless and often wonder if it would really matter if I didn’t exist or if my passing would matter to anyone beyond a passing thought. And it doesn’t matter what rational or positive things I try to tell myself during these episodes, those feelings persist.” 

Chen showed a commendable amount of bravery as she divulged details of just how badly her mental health had affected her. However, she goes on to discuss how it was even able to get so dire in the first place.

“I’ve had mental breaks and have had officers called to my home to check on my welfare. I never dealt with the depression until grad school because my parents didn’t believe in the existence of depression as a condition that is due to biological and chemical imbalances that one can’t just make go away by changing your attitude and thinking,” Chen wrote.

These are feelings that many students can identify with. Many of Chen’s pupils would naturally only know her to be a person that always has an upbeat and a positive attitude. She was very candid in her expression and in humanizing these struggles. However, she emphasizes that her passion for teaching and her love for her students are unwavering, and in fact act as motivations for her.

“The version of me that students see isn’t fake by any means, but it is a version of me that only appears in front of the classroom,” Chen wrote.

Chen has shared with us some of the aspects of her life that don’t ultimately revolve around teaching or math and in which she takes pride in. From her adolescent years of plexer puzzles in middle school to doing advanced calculus questions while drunk in college, and even her long term struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, all of this has ultimately aided in her relationship with herself and her passion. She has solidified that math has always been a major part of who she is.

“Teaching math is my dream job. It was what I always wanted to do,” said Chen. “The purpose and satisfaction that teaching gives me—[and] has always given me since middle and high school when I decided my future career—has been a lifeline at times and has kept me grounded and distracted from whatever else is going on internally.”