By TPM | May 7, 2018
As I sit here for Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve been thinking back on the all the math teachers I had over the course of nearly two decades of learning in K-12, undergraduate, graduate, even MOOCs. I’ve had some really great math teachers, but you know what I’ve realized? Some of the most important lessons they’ve taught me haven’t even been about the quadratic formula, the Pythagorean Theorem, or the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. The teachers that followed have taught me something deeper about mathematics, or even something deeper about life.
Course: 4th Grade Math
Mrs. D was one of those enthusiastic, organized, young teachers. She never had a shortage of things for us to work on that let me know that I was moving forward, from reading to spelling to math. In math, there were charts and stickers and team competitions as we learned our arithmetic facts. Over the course of the year, I could see my progress charted on the wall. I honestly don’t remember how those team competitions worked, but the winners got to go out for pizza on Mrs. D, a huge treat in a town with just one pizza place. Somehow there were enough rewards that I think everyone got to do it at least once.
Lesson: Math achievement is about more than raw ability. Just like a muscle, it’s something that can be strengthened with practice.
Courses: Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Physics
In my small-town high school, Mr. C almost was the math department. Not only did I take three math classes and Physics from him, he was also my baseball coach and youth group leader. While there’s no question that I learned most of my pre-university math from him, what I really took away from him was the fact that he took an interest in me personally, as he did with many students. He knew there were times to push me when I was letting up in class, but other times to ask how I was doing outside of school. He was the first teacher I remember talking with seriously about the possibility of going into education myself. He encouraged me to go after that dream, and he played an important role in my decision to throwing myself into that career.
Lesson: The classroom can be a great context for relationships, relationships that have a dramatic influence on others.
Course: Calculus II
In my freshman year of college, I moved from a tiny town to one of the largest public universities in the country. In the second semester, I no longer had the advantage of knowing most of the material from my high school AP Calculus class. I was more than a little intimidated, and my TA Dimitri had high expectations. You know how sometimes the toughest teachers bring out the best in you? That was Dimitri. A lot of freshman calculus courses are still focused on symbolic manipulation. Not Dimitri’s calculus. He went beyond. Suddenly, I was seeing proofs and logic problems show up in a course, really for the first time at that level. While I doubted myself at first, I soon found a level of satisfaction in solving these problems that totally shocked me. I can actually remember throwing my book across the room in excitement on solving a particular problem.
Lesson: Mathematics involves problem solving thats goes to something much deeper than manipulation of equations, something almost fundamental to our existence as human beings.
Course: Mathematics for Secondary Mathematics Teachers
Senior year of my B.S. in mathematics, and I’d already decided to for for a masters in math education. That meant that I would take a specialized course in Mathematics for High School Teachers with Dr. G, the only education class like this offered by the math department. From the title, I thought this might mean we’d be learning specialized topics that could be incorporated in the high school curriculum. It turned out this was true, from a certain point of view. Dr. G actually taught us how to implement significant parts of a Pre-Calculus and Calculus in Fortran with the thinking that all high school teachers should be competent in at least one programming language. While I never implemented Fortran in my high school curriculum, it certainly changed my thinking about the power of computer science in mathematics.
Lesson: Computer science is a powerful tool for empowering mathematics, probably second only to our own minds in terms of its power for solving problems.
Course: Statistical Inference
When my time as a teacher was drawing to a close a few years ago, I started taking classes on Coursera. I definitely had my doubts as to whether I’d be able to make the transition from the classroom to the corporate culture. 99% of my interaction with my Coursera professors came via recorded interaction and reading forum posts, but in the other 1%, Dr. C took the time to encourage me with some personal email interaction. He said that I was going to be able to use what he was teaching me to successfully transition to a new career. Just 4 months later after working my way through his classes in statistics and regression, I was working at a Fortune 50 company.
Lesson: Don’t believe your self-doubt. You’re never too old to reinvent yourself.
What about you? What lesson(s) do owe to your math teacher(s)? Let me know in the comments below.