Palo Alto High School math teacher Suz Antink wrestles with the question on a daily basis.
"You have to keep looking at how the students are hanging, what they might need," said the Palo Alto resident, who this month begins her 30th year of teaching at Paly.
"If education stands still, it's dead in the water."
Antink is famous among students for riding a motorcycle to school — a blue one that matches her eyes.
"It's a real release to do something like that. When you ride a motorcycle, you have to be in the moment," she said in a recent interview in Paly's Math Resource Center, where she was working with students over the summer.
In the classroom, Antink says she aims to foster the "growth mindset" theories of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck — that intelligence and talent are not fixed traits, and that even the most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.
Her advice to struggling students: "Believe in yourself.
"Know that you can learn anything, and that learning takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself and get enough sleep. Make friends with your teacher, and let the teacher know what's going on with you."
For her recent PhD dissertation in educational leadership and change, Antink tested Dweck's "growth mindset" theories on geometry students at Paly.
"We worked on building a collaborative atmosphere in the classroom. We field-tested Brainology (an online curriculum based on Dweck's theories), taught students about growth mindsets and fixed mindsets and how it works. We reiterated it throughout the year and watched the kids grow," Antink said.
She concluded that, even a year later, students with the "mindset" training were earning a full letter-grade higher than other, similar cohorts in Algebra 2 and Calculus because they had "learned how to learn."
Antink herself had no trouble falling in love with mathematics, viewing it from an early age as "gorgeous."
As a student, she was equally passionate about Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, leading her to double major in math and English at Sonoma State University. Her engineer father urged her to pursue the math route so she'd "always have work."
She was drawn to teaching from a young age, when she attended Catholic school in Erie, Penn.
"I noticed the nuns got to wear long dresses, and I thought that was pretty cool even though some of them were pretty mean," she said.
Later, as a high school student in California, Antink lost a younger brother to leukemia. "I'm the oldest girl, and one of the ways our family coped was I took over my mom's duties, getting home in time to greet my siblings and make a home and hearth. I'd help them with their homework, and I really enjoyed it."
The hardest thing about teaching, she said, is "trying to meet the needs of a lot of different students and keeping things fair and balanced, and keeping some basic rules so everybody knows how to operate."
Antink said she feels "more support than pressure" from parents in Palo Alto but occasionally finds it "heartbreaking" when parents have unrealistic expectations for their child.
"There's nothing more painful to a student than when a parent doesn't recognize who he or she is and is always wanting something different from their child. That's got to be really hard on a kid."
The highs of teaching, she said, come when "the kids get it, and they have that 'aha moment' and totally take over the classroom and start explaining to everybody why things are as they are.
"It's phenomenal when they find value, when they come in and say, 'We're actually using this in physics' — when they see math as a whole gorgeous piece of art."
Antink also appreciates it when kids laugh at her jokes, "because math teachers have great jokes," she said.
"And when you're doing something as wonderful and beautiful as math you should be laughing and smiling a lot."