Disappointed in teaching (I)

It has been six months since I have added to this blog, and they have been six of my worst months in my teaching career. I am actively looking at retirement, mostly because I am so disgusted with teaching and the educational process. Granted that this view is one man’s opinion, and is informed by experience in an individual school and district, but from what I hear from other teachers, my experience might not be unique.

As background, I teach math at the only high school in our district. The demographics for our district are roughly 50% Hispanic, 40% White and 10% “other”. I have been teaching at the same high school for about ten years and previously I have been in engineering and business. I hold graduate degrees in engineering, with a minor in math. My high school education was partly in Europe and partly in New York.

From where I stand, I believe that all three legs of our educational establishment are failing: teachers, students/parents and administrators. In this first part, I want to address my disappointment with my fellow teachers. Again, the caveat is that I am only referring to what I experience with my own colleagues and perhaps I should not generalize to teachers in general. Furthermore, my remarks refer only to high school math teachers – I have a feeling that different skill sets may be more important in elementary and middle schools.

My disappointment with my colleagues has to do with their lack of love for math. This may sound strange, but I firmly believe that there is a significant difference between math teachers and teachers of math. The latter are primarily teachers, the former are more “math people” – they like math for its own sake, are excited by it, do it in their spare time, take additional instruction in it – sometimes self-instruction, and … love math.

My thesis is that you have to love your subject before you can be a good teacher. I also believe that the reverse is true – all the empathy, teaching techniques and patience can not make a good math teacher, without a DEEP understanding and love of the subject. Certainly, in my view, this applies to higher level courses – say anything higher than Algebra I.

What I see around me are teachers for whom teaching is a job. Not that they are “mailing it in” – no, they are conscientious, work on their lesson plans and deliver to the best of their abilities. However, they see their job just like that: here are the standards, here is my lesson plan, here is my lesson plan delivered, here is my assessment.

What I fail to see is the excitement about math – that there are connections between concepts, that there is beauty in the fact that some very basic rules are universally valid throughout all math, that there is glory in thinking and that it is worthwhile admiring the logical edifice that is math. It is like playing the notes of a Brandenburg Concerto, without realizing the beauty and consistency of the music, without putting your feelings about the music into the playing.

Why do we do rational functions today, exponential functions tomorrow and logs next week? I believe that students do not see any logic in this kind of teaching and, as a result, they see math as a series of recipes.  What if we were to emphasize the concept of functions as a model of the real world? What if we were to show a clip of bacteria growing without limit in a Petri dish, talk about cancer and then say, “But wait – we can model this mathematically, we have a tool that allows us to model and ‘play’ with this kind of growth! We can use math to understand what is happening and perhaps control it!” How far from a recipe!  How much can this convey to students the beauty, universality and simplicity of math! How novel (alas!) is the concept that my teacher is excited about math – s/he is not here teaching a lesson!

It is truly disappointing to feel this way and to see that you are the only one among all the other teachers in the department who makes a distinction between math teaching and teaching math.

In all fairness, I believe that at its deepest level this is a cultural phenomenon. American culture has never appreciated math for its own sake – we are empiricists. How often have you heard parents say: “I was never good at math either” or “Math was never my strongest subject”? My kids look at me  strangely and incredulously when I say that I love math. In Europe that is not generally true – math is respected, not hated.

So what would be some solutions? One potential solution is to have a requirement that every high school math teacher is qualified to teach calculus. In the state I teach, that is not true – you can take an exam that qualifies you to teach up to a certain level of math, but no higher. For example, you may be qualified to teach only up to and including Geometry. If the requirement was raised so that everybody must pass an exam that includes Calculus, we may end up with fewer teachers, but better ones.

I also believe that math education for teachers should mandatorily include a course in Applied Mathematics including concepts up to including simple differential educations. A little less pedagogy and more applied math, may also result in a better math teachers. We need to submerge our future teachers more deeply in mathematics – now we just dip them in. Again, the downside is that we may end up with fewer people going into math education, but think about the silver lining: scarcity brings higher pay!

Well, we can dream…



One response to “Disappointed in teaching (I)

  1. Yikes, what a hard post. Hard to read, because it speaks a hard truth, and I bet hard to write. I see what you have seen, although many of my (former) colleagues clearly love math (and could teach Calculus). If you care about education, and system of schooling has worn you down, what do you do?

    Good luck, and keep us posted!

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