Home » math » it’s the people and ideas: why I teach math, part 1

it’s the people and ideas: why I teach math, part 1

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.


  1. Captain America says:

    I once knew an administrator of an alternative school who only hired excellent “teachers” — he didn’t care what subject they had previously taught. If they were excellent teachers, then they could, likely, teach anything. So he amassed his school with excellent teachers, and then put them into various subjects as needed.

    It’s a similar philosophy to the coach who hires the most excellent athletes, and then puts them into whatever position needed. The point is that they are excellent atheletes, not linebackers or tight ends. An excellent athlete can excel at many positions.

    So, Hal, you might just start calling yourself a “teacher,” and then if the conversation proceeds, you can also say that you have taught math, writing, literature, climbing, etc. Currently you are teaching math.

    However, I don’t think that math has the ability to make people uncomfortable any more than any other subject. Do you? I would suggest that politics, religion, love (especially), and philosophy can make people equally, or more, uncomfortable and allow them access to growth equally fast.

    So, I don’t think you’ve entirely fleshed out why you’re a math teacher…yet. Keep fleshing. Maybe you do really like math? Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

  2. halshop says:

    I didn’t say I didn’t like math; I said I didn’t love it.

  3. John says:

    I agree with the Captain – keep fleshing.

    And I like an assumption that I am an “utterly geeky, socially inept, wears-the-same-shirt-every-day, lectures to the board, completely abstract, really smart, boring guys.” This is fine for beginning a party with strangers.

    More needs to be said about Descartes too. Judith Grabiner has this paper with the best title ever, The Centrality of Mathematics in the History of Western Thought, that doesn’t live up to its billing. The title alone is almost enough but this is true of, for example, Descartes and his work. I would like to see it articulated in addition to being identified.

    In particular there is a mathematical influnence that I’ve struggled to name: we understand literal mathematics – the world really works like the equations say it works – a belief which has been powerfully formative of the current world view, applied math and all. But there is also another way mathematics shoves the culture around. The adjective I’ve tried is “schematic” mathematics. Think here of the way the US constitution is modelled in its preamble on Euclid. Or the way Spinoza tries to do ethics. We have an epistemology appropriate to mathematics which gives us all this certainty about our mathematical beliefs and we try to cast all our other beliefs in the same form so that we can import the certainty there too.

    I want to know the sequence of Descartes writings. I wonder if his discoveries in algebraic geometry preceded his method of doubt and rational reconstruction of his beliefs. It seems likely to me that the wild successes of algebraic geometry could touch off such a grandiose scheme.

  4. halshop says:

    I understand what you’re trying to get at and I agree. I see this as part of the self-aggrandizement of mathematics, which is also practice by people outside of mathematics. It’s also part of what I like to call the power and the danger of mathematics. Finally, the course of research you describe and its explication could well be a dissertation or two. While I’ll speculate some, I’m not yet prepared to do all the work required.

  5. John says:

    Well, no. One isn’t ready to do that work when other work supervenes. I think of it more as a reading template. Eclectic reading needs some kind of guide. It its a large question, the reading can be broad too.

  6. Gomez Gomez says:

    What in life can not be broken down into an equation? Regardless there is an answer. We use different vehicles in all of our lives to stimulate the release of that chemical that makes us feel real, here, now. Maybe it started from our own parents and them teaching us. I agree you love ideas, people, teaching; however, your thought is what makes you…for me…you are a rich natural source and you love to share and explore on any level. I also agree with the Capt. There are more subjects than math. I am uncomfortable right now, for instance.

  7. Kristin says:

    I’m glad you acknowledged that there are, in fact, “some exceptional math teachers who bring math to life for their students and who inspire further study, even emulation.” Reading this inspired me moments ago to track down my high school calculus teacher who once made me very uncomfortable by cornering me in the hallway along with another teacher to “bully” me into the advanced math track (which I had attempted to shed when I entered high school). While at the time I felt somehow violated (intellectually and emotionally), in retrospect I now realize that she and the other teacher had done me a great favor. For one, they believed in me (at the time I clearly didn’t believe in myself; despite doing well in math as measured by grades, I felt that I was continuously failing, which was why I attempted my math escape). Their confidence probably made a greater impact on me than the calculus class I ended up taking from her once I succumbed to their pressure. But she did bring math to life in a way that my subsequent college professors didn’t (sigh), and my current investigation yielded that she went on to become an “award-winning teacher” who developed culturally relevant math lessons. Whether or not she was employing these lessons at the time I was her student I don’t know, but what I do know is that for over 6 years I worked in the realm of math and science education reform–largely because I felt cheated by my science education but rewarded by my math education and wanted to find a way to reconcile these disparate experiences.

  8. Sabrina says:

    Hal-your posting made me smile. I’ve heard before that one’s skill in art stops at the point when they were criticized; the same is (somewhat) true with math. There is so much fear associated with math.

    I had a friend in college who was so petrified of the required math course that we had to pass that he hired someone else to take it for him (the exams, that is). Another boyfriend of a friend of mine did the verbal section for his SAT and she did the math section (because he said he was so poor at it)–(ethically questionable–but wouldn’t even happen today)

    I found that the best math teachers were those who gave individualized attention. I was lucky that my dad worked out of our home and was a math person–I could run into his office and ask him about anything. So, I was not a natural in math but didn’t have the fear, thanks to my dad.

    One teacher I had in high school would give the lecture and then give out problems–then each person could go up to him at his desk and get individualized attention. I really liked that style.

    I’m so happy that YOU are the one teaching math.

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