Dear Community; Sincerely, Math Teacher

Our school has a bi-weekly community newsletter that goes out to the school, alumni, parents and whoever else wants it. Often, a teacher writes a little introductory letter about their philosophy of teaching or their journey to the profession. I wrote for this week’s newsletter, and got a great reaction from a lot of lay people (i.e. non mathletes) so I thought I would just share it here too. The ideas in it should be familiar to the MTBoS, so get your head nod ready…

Dear St. Andrew’s Family,

When I meet new people out in the wild, I can usually predict their reaction when they hear that I’m a high school math teacher. Often, they immediately express to me how much they hate math. I have to admit I think it’s rather odd to tell someone you just met how you loathe the very thing to which he has dedicated his life’s work. (“You work for the Red Cross? Yeah, I absolutely detest charities.”) Another, even more common reaction is to tell me just how awful they are at math, taking pride in how colorfully they can describe the extent to which they struggled with the subject in school. Again, I find this a bit odd. Would we boast of our inability to read or write to an English teacher? Why is it not only okay but apparently a point of pride to be “bad” at math?

I love math. To me, it is a beautiful, complex web of ideas that can delight us with a puzzle, or shed light on the world around us. How could the math I love be a groan/panic/boredom inducing menace for so many people? The only resolution to this paradox that I can see is that the math I love and the math they hate are really two totally different entities. Without a focus on beautiful ideas, math’s procedures and operations lose their larger meaning and purpose, and math becomes a boring, repetitive, unconnected series of challenges that demand rote memorization without real understanding. This lack of connection to the deep conceptual backdrop of mathematics is not only the reason math haters don’t enjoy the subject—it’s also the reason they struggle mightily to learn it well.

As a math teacher, the painful part of this disconnect is that I believe it’s all our fault. The way math is taught often creates an oppressive and obfuscating imposter subject.

I aspire every day to fight against this imposter math, and to connect my students to the idea-rich math that I know and love. I try to make every problem we tackle in class or in homework one that a student cares about solving, whether by framing the class with a running conceptual thread that makes learning feel like unearthing the next piece of a mathematical mystery, or by investigating an application of real import, or by just engaging with a curious puzzle. I try to never tell a student something that they can figure out for themselves, because math is about discovery and exploration. Newspapers don’t print already-filled-in crossword puzzles; it’s not the answers but getting to the answers that’s the point. And I try to help students become vulnerable enough to take risks productively and make mistakes confidently, so that the more difficult, but more satisfying, work of idea-making (as opposed to procedure-regurgitating) is accessible to them.

As I write out these aspirational teaching goals, I am struck by how often I fail to meet them, and, how when I don’t, I am contributing to the creeping oppressiveness of “imposter math” by default. But it’s this awareness of my sworn enemy that keeps me engaged and excited about my profession every day.

Even if I can’t lead every student I teach to fall in love with math the way I have, I hope that at the very least I am connecting them with math’s big ideas in some real way. I like to think I am helping to rear a generation of students who won’t, twenty years down the road, regale every stray math teacher they meet with stories of how much they hated nasty old mathematics.

All the best,
Bowman Dickson
Mathematics Faculty; Cross-Country & Swimming Coach
bdickson@standrews-de.org

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Posted on December 4, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks so much for sharing. The head nodding was constant which, let’s be honest, is frustrating. It helps though to hear that others experience the same constant struggle, working towards the same goal, and encounter the same sense of personal failure at times.

  2. I was just commenting the other day that math is an art of sorts and when we teach to trace lines all day (working someone else’s equations), we would find math very boring. I think this boredom just cultivates a natural dislike for math. It is sad that there is a bit of pride in one’s dislike of math.

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