Thoughts on Teaching

I have a lot of emotions and thoughts lately, and my confidence isn’t too high. I’m second-guessing every moment of the interview I had yesterday. I think I need to focus on the fact that I am passionate and capable. I will be an excellent teacher. Hopefully some of the thoughts I gather here will help me ace the MfA interview in March.

Why do I want to be a teacher? Often times, statistics are given that show how much more money people with degree X earn more than people with degree Y. The way I see it, there is so much more difference than just the money. People who are educated enjoy the pleasure of thinking about interesting ideas and having more meaningful discussions than the latest tabloid gossip. Furthermore, educated people are aware of the problems we face as a species. Educations allows people to understand our place in the universe, and how fragile life is. I want to teach because my intellectual journey has made me into someone I’m proud to be, and I want to share that with as many people as I can. Teaching gives me a sense of purpose. I can’t wait to meet all of my students. I will have much to learn from them.

Why do I think math is important? Everyone does math every day. When we look at a baseball, we unknowingly calculate its center of mass without even thinking about it. When a bird chirps, we use the sound to calculate where the bird is, and when we see the bird flying through the air, we calculate its speed and direction to predict its movements. Mathematics is the process of interrogating the universe. In Algebra, we consider the universe to be a universe of sets, functions, and objects which we can manipulate with operations like addition, multiplication, complementation, composition, etc. . In high school geometry, we take the universe to be a flat plane on which we can draw shapes, calculate areas, and observe properties of triangles. The actual universe we live in has incredible and complex behavior that can be interpreted with many different systems of mathematics in different contexts. At the high school level, it’s most important to underscore the connection between mathematics and the world we live in. I’ll need more time to think about how I’ll do this. It also depends on what particular course I’ll be teaching.

Why do I want to teach in a high needs school? I attended a public school in California that got less funding and worse teacher support each year. There were a select few excellent teachers there who made sure that their students were at no disadvantage. I can be that kind of excellent teacher. I can be there for students who don’t have the opportunities that kids at well-funded private schools.

What about the students who struggle with math? Historically, it has been thought that women aren’t capable of doing math. I think these same kinds of assumptions are what guide the thought that some students are “slow” and just not good at math. People are inherently curious creatures who wonder about the big questions in life. Math is intimately connected with the inherent human desire to understand how things work. If students are slow or not interested in math, it’s because there is some social pressure getting in the way. Perhaps it’s the way math is presented, perhaps it’s the subject material itself (hand-computation is, I admit, really boring. Why make kids do what they should be telling computers to do much faster?). In a talk by Salman Khan of Khanacademy.org, Khan mentions a pilot program in southern California in which a school district adopts an alternative content delivery method in math. Students watch lecture videos as homework, and 100% of class time is spent helping individual students with the subjects that they’re having trouble with. Each student has an account that monitors what they watch, what exercises they get correct and incorrect, down to how much time each student spends on each question. The teacher has access to everyone’s statistics, and so knows exactly what each student is having trouble with and what each student is good at. This way, the teacher can have kids who are excelling in subject A help kids who are struggling with subject A. Khan reports that the stereotypes of slow kids who “just don’t get math” are utterly repudiated. A learning model that requires students to master material rather than just “get by” elicits results that show that students learn different topics at different rates. In a traditional system, a student who struggles with some core concept who moves on without ever having mastered that concept is doomed to get behind and get discouraged. Conversely, a student who is able to master the concepts as she goes gains confidence. Khan said that students who used to be labeled as slow would zoom ahead of the class in certain topics. I think almost everyone is capable of doing important mathematics. In fact, I think the ability to do mathematics is a defining characteristic of being human, as it is a sophisticated language. As we’ve seen with language, it doesn’t matter where in the world you drop a baby. That baby will learn the language of the people around it. The same is true with math. The only difference is that not everyone speaks math as well as they might speak, say, English.

I wish I could have spoken these thoughts in the interview as well as I’ve written them here. What do you think about what I’ve said, reader?

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Teaching

  1. What I think? You are incredibly awesome, and it is not too late to deliver this to your interviewers…time is of the essence…sort of like a posthearing brief…it’s never too late.

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