Chris Fiano, Upper School Mathematics Teacher

A new addition to the Ellis faculty this year, Upper School Mathematics Teacher Chris Fiano recognized something at Ellis that was a cornerstone of his own education—integrated studies and opportunities. A lover of music and math his entire life, Mr. Fiano recognized early in his education that there was space to do both and has pursued his passions in tandem ever since. An inspiring example to Ellis girls who juggle field hockey practice with chess competitions, Mr. Fiano has master’s degrees in both Mathematics and Vocal Performance and taught college-level mathematics for seven years before entering the world of all-girls education in 2016. Committed to leading by example and showing girls they can do anything they set their mind to, Mr. Fiano shares his path to Ellis, his favorite thing about his job, and what’s stood out the most to him since his first day.
Years at Ellis:One
Title:Upper School Mathematics Teacher
Education:B.A. Mathematics and Music, St. Vincent College; M.M. Vocal Performance, Duquesne University; MS.Ed. Mathematics Education, Duquesne University

Why did you choose to teach at an all-girls school?
Last year, I worked at Oakland Catholic and I really enjoyed being in an all-girls school. When the opportunity came up at Ellis, I looked at the mathematics curriculum on the website and I could tell the department was really strong and followed a path I was interested in. I’m not interested in just teaching to a test, I’m interested in connections and brain building. I’ve been teaching for eight years and I’ve had realizations here every day that I’ve never had before. I also think the all-girls environment allows girls to reveal more of their true selves, particularly so in math. Teaching at an all-girls school gives me the opportunity to be a positive male role model to my students, as well as an advocate for them.

What drew you to Ellis?
The interdisciplinary mindset is one of the things that drew me to Ellis. It seemed like a place where girls could express themselves in multiple avenues and not feel the pressure to be or do any one thing. When I was in high school, I played basketball and football, but I was also the lead in our musical and would sing the national anthem before games. I love how Ellis embraces and celebrates that because it’s something that was an integral part of my own education.

How do you encourage your students to be creative problem solvers and critical thinkers?
I try to facilitate questions that ascertain a high-level of dialogue amongst my students. Sometimes I’ll purposefully push them into a corner and ask them why they think it doesn’t make sense. I also use a lot of real-world examples technology in my classroom like Desmos, an online graphing calculator, and Geogebra, an interactive mathematics software. I really listen to the girls and value their input—I want them to gain deductive and local reasoning skills so they can use math in different applications. I don’t want them to think of math as an individual, isolated course, I want them to see the interconnectivity math has across their curriculum. At Ellis, I see girls with a love of math that I haven’t encountered at previous schools. I feel like I’m working with individuals who have an intuitive love of mathematics, exploration, and logic. In general, I’ve found Ellis girls to be very curious and eager to learn.

What were you most surprised to find out when you came to Ellis?
I picked up on the arts emphasis during the interview process, but I didn’t realize how embedded the arts are in the community until I began teaching. We’re in an age when a lot of schools are cutting art programs down to the bare minimum, but at Ellis, we recognize how the arts are crucial to student’s growth potential. I’m a math teacher, but I believe one of the ways students can interpret problems and their surroundings is by building those skills through the arts. Whether it’s being part of a musical or an ensemble, the arts give students a creative outlet and different modes of expression and thought.   
Do you have a mentor? How has that relationship benefited you professionally? Can you tell me about him or her?
Kassie Wadsworth is my official mentor here and has been really great about showing me the ropes and answering all of my questions about everything Ellis. I’m advising alongside Jack Gaddess and I look up to him as well, the way he’s able to show the kids he cares about them is something I’ve never encountered before. And of course in addition to Kassie and Jack, all of my colleagues in the math department. They all approach math differently and that’s helped me redefine my approach and consider new ways of thinking. One of the things that has stood out to me at Ellis is how helpful everyone is. For instance, I recently sent out an email to the community asking if anyone had a deck of cards I could use for a class, and the next day I had more decks in my classroom than I could even use!

What has stood out to you about Ellis during your first year here?
I’ve never been in an environment where everyone gets along like they do at Ellis. All of the teachers are genuinely interested in what everyone is doing—it’s a real community feel and I love that. I feel like there’s space for me to be here. And with the students, I like how there are no cookie cutter personalities at Ellis. Every girl seems to know they can be their individual self here, and in turn, I feel like I can do the same and show my personality as well.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Unique. Creative. Shy.

What woman inspires you and why?
My mother. Now that I’m older I recognize all of the sacrifices she made for my sisters and I growing up. The love she exhibits for her children is greater than any love I’ve ever encountered. The way she cares about her children has really helped me work with kids as a teacher.

What song can you not pass up on the radio?
Anything by Van Halen.

What’s your favorite musical?
A modern musical, Next to Normal. My dream role would be to play the Dad.

What do you love most about your job?
The fact that I get to walk into work and teach math everyday—it’s so much fun. I learn as much from my students as I teach them, maybe even more. I love that Ellis has given me the place to truly explore my love of mathematics and the freedom to do it in a way that resonates with my students.