Friday, February 07, 2014

How I became a math teacher?

The question mark in the subject line is deliberate.  I am a very un-mathy person.  I like Scrabble, cryptograms, word-based logic problems, crosswords; I shy away from number puzzles.  Not that I can't do math or handle numbers, at least in the everyday world; it's just that if I were sign up for a course in something that interested me, it probably wouldn't be math.  My idea of probably the dullest job in the world is accounting.

But teaching math--that does interest me.  Ever since I started looking at math curricula and homeschooling The Apprentice (and the later Squirrelings), close to two decades ago, I've been fascinated by the history of how math has been taught, especially over the last century, especially at the elementary levels.  I was there for a lot of it, good, bad, and ugly. What might be abstractions for some are clear memories for me.  I liked this, I learned from that; or not.  This teacher knew how to get math ideas across; that one made us fall asleep.

And I like teaching elementary math (and basic algebra and geometry) at home, seeing the girls learn new ideas and gain confidence in their numeracy. Even when they struggle or complain that math is hard or boring...that's a challenge.  I like being able to work at our own pace, and to use whatever's handy for illustrations.  I like feeling free to just say "here's the rule, here's how you do it" when that makes more sense than endless demonstrations and discovery learning.

I liked using our stash of rods and hundred charts and games and software.  I liked helping people who didn't get Miquon Math.  (I still think it's a brilliant primary curriculum.)  I liked reading about people like John Holt and John Mighton who believed that all children could learn math if it was carefully taught.

So does that make me a math teacher?  Well, I do teach math, and as I said, I have been teaching math to at least one child each year, sometimes two, for almost twenty years.  (Sometimes Mr. Fixit has been the math teacher too.) While I'm not a mathematician, did not major in math, do not even have math credits beyond Grade 13 (and I struggled for that one), I seem to have steered the Squirrelings towards acceptable levels of numeracy.  Other homeschooling parents, many without specialization in math, have done the same.

How?  I can't speak for all the other families out there.  For some it might be nothing more than buying a solid textbook or workbook series and doing whatever comes next.  For myself, I just decided that the process of teaching elementary math was not that much more mysterious than the teaching of any other subject.  If I could teach reading, writing, history, there was no particular reason I couldn't also handle elementary arithmetic and middle-school math topics. And since I was very aware of the booby traps and swamps in my own math adventures, I was determined to avoid as many of them as possible, including the infamous Fifth Grade Slough of Despond (girls often fall into it around the time they meet up with Giant Long Division).  If public school gave me only a mediocre appreciation of math, I could do at least somewhat better with my own girls.

Now here's the big point.

In Ontario, scores on standardized math tests are dropping.  Why? Some blame the teachers.  Some blame the curriculum.  Some blame society.  Or the weather.

One proposed solution is to have elementary math taught only by math specialists.  Because even the classroom teachers don't seem to be able to teach math well using the new approaches.  Does that imply that there's a) something wrong with the students, b) something wrong with the teachers, or c) something wrong with the curriculum? Votes?

It reminds me of a situation where an office bought a huge, expensive, complicated copier that required advanced training just to make ordinary copies.  Yes, if you were properly trained on it, you could use it to copy, sort and bind entire encyclopedias, but most of the usual copying chores were much more mundane.  It would have made more sense to buy a simpler machine, and send the occasional complicated jobs to a print shop.  It didn't make sense to blame the office staff, either, just because they didn't want to be full-time slaves of the Copying Beast.  And it wouldn't have made sense to put blame on the clients--because, in the end, they didn't care how big or expensive the copier was--they just wanted their letters and documents.

And what we really need is for schools to teach math (and other subjects), in a way that the teachers can handle, in a way that delivers what the children require, in ways that help them to grow and learn and include numbers and measurement and shapes and mathematical relationships in their lives.  Because they aren't impressed by how big the machine is, either, if it's not working for them.

For them, all you administrators out there. Take it from this question-marked math teacher.

Linked from Math Teachers at Play Carnival #71.

1 comment:

amy in peru said...

i thoroughly appreciate your thoughts here.
i didn't like math in school. apparently, it wasn't math itself, but the teachers, the classrooms, the homework, the way it was taught. it seems marvelous then to me that i REALLY like teaching math to my kids. and it would seem that after all i really like math. just don't ask me to be a math teacher. or an accountant.


we used miquon math at first too (it seems like it was kind of teacher intensive?). but then i was given some MUS and switched and then couldn't justify paying every time they up and decided to update their curriculum and found MEP as free and better than anything i'd ever really seen. now, i'm happy as a lark with it. i LOVE teaching math. of course, like you i enjoy teaching lots of things and those probably just as much as math, but still.

on the other hand, there is no subject that can potentially be more frustrating for me to teach than math. now, how does that work?