New math teacher mixes ‘cool points’ and music to hype up interest in his classes

Cameron+Tong+%28right%29+celebrates+his+wedding+day+with+his+bride%2C+Shirley%2C+on+July+13+in+front+of+Wyoming%E2%80%99s+Grand+Teton+mountain+range.+Nearly+a+month+later+on+Aug.+11%2C+Tong+starts+the+2020-2021+school+year+at+Sunny+Hills+as+a+new+math+instructor%2C+teaching+Algebra+2+and+Probability+and+Statistics.

Image used with permission from Cameron Tong.

Cameron Tong (right) celebrates his wedding day with his bride, Shirley, on July 13 in front of Wyoming’s Grand Teton mountain range. Nearly a month later on Aug. 11, Tong starts the 2020-2021 school year at Sunny Hills as a new math instructor, teaching Algebra 2 and Probability and Statistics.

Krishna Thaker

Every Friday, math teacher Cameron Tong plays a musical game with his students in all of his classes called, “Guess That Song.” As students are joining his Zoom session or are walking into his classroom during the passing period, Tong plays tunes from his smartphone. 

The first student to send him a chat message with the correct song title and artist wins what Tong calls “cool points.” Or the winner could also be someone in class who raises his or her hand first before the chat message arrives. 

“When [my students] graduate and walk across that stage with their diploma in hand they’re not going to think about their memories with friends, nor their family, but they’ll be thinking about my cool points,” Tong said jokingly. “When they have their first child and they are holding their baby for the first time … they will still be thinking about my cool points.” 

Some days, he’ll also have his students guess more than one song. Like on Nov. 13, the teacher played three songs from 1980s teen movies, “Weird Science,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club,” during his fifth period Probability and Statistics class. The runaway winner was senior Taylor Lozada.

And although Tong calls his prize for the winner “cool points,” they actually don’t have any real value when it comes to students’ grades.

“I just do this activity to get my students engaged and energized at the beginning of class on the days I do it,” he said. 

Tong, who was hired this school year to teach three classes of Algebra 2 and two classes of Probability and Statistics, first started incorporating this activity with his students at the beginning of this school year. 

“When we started the school year online I didn’t like how quiet it was in the Zoom room while waiting for students to come in so I started playing music and then later I would just ask students if they knew the songs, and it went from there,” he said. 

Besides this musical effort to keep his students focused at the beginning of the period, Tong also hopes those in his classes will see his passion for the subjects he teaches.

“I love math. I’ve always had a talent for math, which is why I became a math teacher,” he said. “But above all, I enjoy interacting with young people.” 

Tong said he values connecting, helping and relating to his students, which is what he did at his previous campus, Nogales High School in La Puente, where he taught Algebra I, Geometry and Advanced Placement Calculus for the past four years. 

“[When I was at] my last school was my first time teaching as this is currently only my fifth year of teaching,” he said. “I learned a lot from my students and fellow teachers, but I would say my main takeaway was understanding the importance of making connections with my students.” 

That passion is exactly what prompted principal Allen Whitten to bring him on board to join the staff.

“We are really excited about his energy and skill in the classroom,” Whitten said. “Kids learn from those they love, and Mr. Tong seems to be a teacher with this kind of potential.”

One of his Probability and Statistics students, junior Ashley Hoang, has nothing but positive feedback about Tong so far. 

“[Mr. Tong] is really understanding and empathizes with whatever we may be going through,” Hoang said. “The other day, he took a poll asking us how we were doing and if anybody responded with lower than a three, he would remind them that he is there for us and understands that we have problems of our own.” 

Another student, senior Seamus MacQuoid, offered this simple assessment: 

“Mr. Tong is the embodiment of perfection.” 

Tong also keeps his students engaged by showing interest in things they are passionate about. 

“He also talks about things like current events or things in pop culture, which makes class really interesting,” Hoang said. “He is making math class easier to go through and even enjoyable.”

A club the instructor said he hopes to establish here is the Open Jam Music Club, which was one that Tong really enjoyed being a part of during his time attending the University of California, Irvine, where he attended from 2012-2015. 

“I’ve asked my students if they’d be interested in starting it, and I’d be the adviser,” Tong said. “You come, it’s open-mic, you play music, and once a month there is a show.” 

When he attended Orange Lutheran High School from 2007–2011, Tong said he joined track and field, played the guitar, piano, drums and bass for a church band and performed in a church club. 

“I still play guitar [and piano] at least weekly,” he said. “Listening to music, playing instruments, and even writing songs has been a sort of therapy and creative outlet for me, especially throughout high school and college.”  

Nowadays, Tong said he likes to travel, practice his instruments, go to the beach, run and spend time with his wife, whom he married earlier this summer on July 13. The pair met during their first year of college through mutual friends.

“Unfortunately our original wedding plans got canceled due to COVID-19, but above all, my wife and I still wanted to marry each other,” Tong said. “We took a two-week trip to Grand Teton National Park, Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park and got married at the beginning of the trip in front of the beautiful Grand Teton mountains.” 

After graduating from Orange Lutheran in 2011, Tong said he opted to attend the University of California, Irvine, where he got his bachelor’s degree in economics upon graduation in 2015. He then got his teaching credential in 2016 and a master’s in education degree in 2019.

His path toward becoming a teacher took different turns, but he eventually found his way toward the education field. 

“Throughout my time during college, I always tutored high school students, but I also explored other careers and worked or interned for finance companies,” Tong said. “By the end of college, I realized I never had a passion for those other career paths, so I fully committed myself to become a teacher and never looked back.”