I’m a math teacher. When people hear this statement, say at a party, I can watch the process of reconsidering me happening on their faces. They appear to be going through their experience of math and math teachers and putting me into that context. It’s not something I love; in fact, I hate being put into a box—“math teacher,” “male,” “blogger,” etc.—but it’s something with which I’ve learned to deal.
Part of the problem is the proximity of “math” to “teacher.” If you’re like most people, when asked about your best teachers you will not identify a math teacher. It’s almost as if “math teacher” is oxymoronic. There are, of course, exceptional math teachers who bring math to life for their students and who inspire further study, even emulation. But ask a pseudo-random sampling of people and you’ll discover that most people remember that dynamic English or psychology or history or political science or physics teacher. Ask them specifically about their math teachers—they won’t stand out, except in their boring inaccessibility. (Polling in a software company or other similar mathematically-related workplace is not fair, although I’m willing to bet even there you would not find a high number of math teachers as the most highly rated.)
The aspect of being categorized as a math teacher that bothers me most is that the focus is on “math” rather than on “teacher.” The assumption is that since I teach math, I must be one of those utterly geeky, socially inept, wears-the-same-shirt-every-day, lectures to the board, completely abstract, really smart, boring guys. More importantly, I must love math. I’m not sure about the former list (although I do try to wear different clothes every day), but I can say with certainty that I don’t love math.
I’m a teacher because I love ideas. It’s actually my job to talk and elicit conversation about ideas, not something many others professions can claim. And, among the many powerful and important ideas in the history of Western thought, mathematical ideas rank highly. For example, Descartes is probably most famous for his “cogito ergo sum,” but the Cartesian plane represented a fundamental change in the way we look at and think about the world—every map with letters across the top and numbers down the side is a Cartesian plane in action, not to mention Battleship and a myriad of other applications. Calculus and related developments are the foundation of modern technology, the very computer I use to type this blog entry and the internet with which it is published. I’m a math teacher because I get to talk about, use, and try to convey the importance of ideas like these every semester.
I’m a teacher because I love people. Teaching gives me the opportunity to watch and be a part of a person’s growth explicitly, intentionally, palpably. The relationship between the students and their teacher has all the aspects of parenthood, and the good teachers take it that seriously. I teach math, in particular, because it has the ability to make people uncomfortable—and therefore make them grow—and keep them focused on that discomfort faster and better than anything else I know. I’m a math teacher because I love the process of helping people ask questions, struggle with them, be frustrated, find some resolution, and learn.