Teacher’s pet (peeves)

I’m a math teacher. Though I’m currently taking a break from teaching, I will always in my heart be a math teacher. I love math. I love teaching even more! I have been so lucky in my experiences to be exposed to phenomenal math teachers. I have also had the unfortunate side of the “weird math teacher” or the “nerdy math teacher” as well. I must have blocked them out of my mind because I love the subject, but I just mainly remember the great experiences.

My first experience with a truly great math teacher was in 7th grade. Mrs. Gainey! She always, always had a smile on her face and loved to challenge our way of thinking about math. She was the first one who really made me reason the “why” for myself. “Why do we need this? Why is math important? Why can’t we just let someone else do it?” Now, I never actually asked these questions out loud, but others did. Her responses many times were “Well that’s a good question, we’ll discuss it more tomorrow.” And the next day she would come in with this amazing context to the previous day’s question.

My next memorable experience (only because I can’t write on every math teacher) was 10th grade, Mrs. Gaerte! When she walked in with such confidence, stood at the front of the class and told us “I don’t care what you used to think, I’m going to show you how to really think.” I was in love! Advanced Geometry was a blast. She challenged everything we’ve ever learned with just a simple True/False question. She forced us out of our comfort zones, made us go to the board and teach others what we knew on a daily basis. She was also the first teacher I had to encourage me to think about teaching as a career. It’s crazy how well your teachers know you if they care to know you!

My other memorable high school experience was my Senior year with Mr. Gorbal! This man was my mentor for many years after high school. I loved how he walked in to class, jumped right to the board and started teaching the lesson. Many times, he’d write out everything. Then he’d go back, underline a few words and then show how those words related to a symbol. Then he’d go to the symbols (or equations) and show us how those symbols created graphs. He always had three ways teaching us. And this was in Calculus, mind you. His intellect amazed me. I was many times awe-struck at how smart he was and could just lead us along without actually giving us all the answers up front. He was also a music minor. Did you know that many people who have music degrees are also very gifted in math? Hmmm… wonder why?

I had a few good college professors, but I will only touch on one great one. Dr. Watt! When I say great, I mean enthusiastic, expert, skillful, magnificent, impressive… the list could go on. This man amazed me. First, he didn’t look a day over 35, but when he would talk about how he worked for a major oil company for 20 years, you think – oh, he must have graduated college when he was 15, right? Maybe not, but then he would talk about his experience with math. He shared. As a college professor, that’s unheard of in many cases. He told us how he grew up hating math and he thought he was no good at it. Then he found as he was getting his master’s degree that he was wrong about this and went on to get a Ph.D in Math. Yes, a man who hated math his entire young life gets a Ph.D in math. He would speak simply and kindly to each student. After having him my first semester of my freshman year – and sitting next to other students who were not first semester freshmen who told me he’s the best teacher they’ve ever had – I sought out classes he taught. Why? Because I needed the credits? No… because HE was teaching them. I had him for three more classes, all of which I loved. He made math real. Like really real! It’s not just numbers and equations on a board, but it applies to real life. I’m getting so giddy just writing about him. He is a great man!

So why do I write all this – to tell you that there are great math teachers out there? Well, yes there are! I grew up in the public school system, and there are fantastic teachers. Teachers who care, love and nurture your child. They want absolutely the best for them and for those kids to be successful in life. There are, unfortunately, teachers who are not like this. Teachers who are grated and have a chip on their shoulder. Teachers who’ve been warned by the administration that if they don’t get their student’s scores up they’ll get the ax (that was me my first year teaching in AZ). It’s hard to teach under that pressure. But any teacher worth their weight will keep that stuff buried so when they go to teach the kids, they’re doing just that… teaching kids. Not teaching a test, not teaching administration, not teaching parents.

What gets my goat is the people with the best intentions posting things like this:

Teacher's fight_LI

While there are some valid points (rote memorization kills all enjoyment of anything), this post is strictly fear-mongering. It’s only seeking to scare parents into a defensive stance against a teacher’s methods. There are no facts or sources to back up this claim. There is no suggestion on a different way to teach the suggested topic.

Here’s a response I wanted to write (and decided it best I don’t).

I have to say that you may be right, but without providing any data or any alternatives, you’re not really doing anyone a service other than scaring parents. Generalized statements like this do just the opposite of their intention. They cause divisiveness between teachers and parents regarding the best approach to teaching a child. Open communication is the key to preventing any trauma. Everything could be potential trauma: you have to wear black tennis shoes – TRAUMA to a fashionista. You have to read a book – TRAUMA to a dyslexic kid. You have to find out why Suzy spent $14 on watermelons – TRAUMA. I think you are riding a slippery slope without sourcing your opinion and providing alternatives.

If math has taught me anything is that we need facts, research and information to back up claims. This is just one topic, but there are people out there who attack so much about how math is taught. Here’s what I will say:

  1. Math method is a constantly changing way of teaching. When I went through school, we were taught the method of inclusion and differentiated instruction. Now student-teachers are taught to use a Common Core method. GOOD teachers will be constantly learning about the best strategies to teach children. This could be tried and true strategies or this could be an evolving strategy. Teachers will also use what best fits their personality. No two teachers are alike, and that includes how they teach. One method may work great for one teacher, but fail horribly for another all because the teacher’s personality isn’t the best suited.
  2. Math does need to be revamped. I absolutely think that how kids learn math at the younger years affects how much the like math in the older years. Kids need to be challenged early with math. They need to be allowed to explore, be wrong, explore again. Ironically, common core hits a lot of this, but fails in actual practice because the ideology of common core is taken to an extreme it was never meant to go. Math is about discovery! No math is invented, it’s discovered and utilized to explain how the world works. It’s setting up symbols and equations that follow a standard set of rules, rules that everyone can follow because they are so precise. I am not the person to revamp the system. It requires much more than just a teacher changing how they teach.
  3. Parents need to be involved and supportive of their student’s math teachers! Let me say this again, INVOLVED and SUPPORTIVE! This does not mean you have to agree with everything the teacher says, but you must absolutely make sure that when your child is the reason for the failures, you don’t go to the teacher with a sob story and ask the teacher to unfairly change that kid’s grade. It’s unfair to the teacher, unfair to the classmates and ultimately unfair to that student. henryford4-2x
  4. I submit this Ted Talk from 2016 by Dan Finkel. (it’s about 15 mins long, but WELL WORTH watching). This could be a start to changing the system… maybe?
  5. While #4 is an amazing idea, there are some downfalls. Mainly the government, administration and those pesky tests. Everything is on a time-table. I would love for my students to explore and play with ideas, but as a teacher I have to meet a specific deadline or my job is on the line. So things are cut. The enjoyment is cut. The rabbit trails are cut. The exploring on topics is cut.

I’m not writing a piece on how to fix the entire system, but hopefully to fix the mindsets that teachers are somehow the enemy to the student. That the methods the teachers use to teach in class are traumatizing to our kid’s mathematical experiences.

I’m writing to propose that IF you are a good teacher, you will already be doing everything in your power to make your student’s experience with math the best experience they can have. You communicate to parents when you see their child struggle. You talk to your students privately to see how they’re doing. You get to know them on a personal level that allows you to gain trust and openness. Also as a teacher, you do not belittle any other subject. Every teacher, no matter the subject, works hard and loves their work. Do not diminish that for your own personal glorification.

IF you are a good parent, you will do the same at home. You will not let them come home and say “I hate math”. Instead you will ask questions like “Why? You need to be clear about what in math you hate.” You will not tell your child “well I was no good at math and I’m fine” – That is a HUGE pet peeve of mine and when I hear a parent say it, I correct them immediately. You do not dismiss an entire subject to your child just because it was not your favorite. I would never tell any one of my children “well I hated reading, but I managed.” It’s allowing a negative behavior to persist and slapping the teacher in the face by saying the subject matter they teach doesn’t actually matter.

There are great teachers out there! I didn’t mention any of my other subject teachers that I loved [Dr. Landy (Physics), Mr. Kent (11th English), & Mr. Kelly (Genetics)], because my expertise is in math. There are some teachers who are not as great. This could be a personality thing, or something more. Just as in life, we don’t get to choose who we work with, but we still must make it work. Stay positive with your kids. If they’re struggling, ask questions, don’t place blame. Open a dialogue with the teachers without being accusatory. We all have one goal: to make sure the child is the best version of themselves they can be.

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