The Teachers' Scrounge

News and comments from the world of public education. A middle school math teacher shared what he learned today.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

When will I use this?

What exactly did we sign up for? When I chose to major in mathematics, I had no idea the type of coursework that would entail. Oh, I thought I did. I thought mathematics = arithmetic. Instead I spent time in classes learning about Fourier Series, Fundamental Theorems of this or that, and the origins of irrational numbers. Dr. Gawande (whose book I mentioned previously) writes that he was surprised that the most difficult part of his job is not the medical knowledge, but rather when and how to apply the power of this knowledge. Teachers know the majority of our challenges arise, not from the content, but from classroom management.

In high school I knew I wanted to become a teacher. Early in high school -- like freshman year. I was spending every class period, every day in a perfect setting to learn about my future profession. I was observing classroom teachers for six hours, five days a week. I had effective teachers, poor teachers, traditional classrooms, interactive groups, core curriculum subjects, electives, assertive discipline, no discipline, and more! Despite the wealth that was spread before me, I did not make an effort to tap the wisdom displayed before me daily. I didn't pepper my teachers with questions about how they accomplished their work. I didn't ask how they were able to grade 150 tests overnight, what discipline problems were most challenging, when they preferred to phone parents at home, or what they did when 40 students were failing because of missing assignments.

The most information I received was pushed to me by the teacher who (knowingly or not) recruited me into the profession. Mr. H taught 9th-grade geometry. In a portable building. I soon found myself hanging out in Mr. H's room before school, after school, and sometimes even at lunch -- for FOUR YEARS. In retrospect, I don't know how he could stand me.

Mr. H shared a few inside secrets of his profession. "When I give the first test of the year, I sit in the back of the room. You can spot the cheaters because they keep turning around in their desks to keep an eye on the teacher." I didn't ask for this information, but I think Mr. H knew that these insights would serve me well. So he told me whether I asked or not. "Two female students who I busted for cheating have been trying to stop by for help before school. They stand real close to me and rub up against me. I've gone down to let the principal know and I've told the students we can go to the library when they need homework help."

Sometime before I retire, I hope I recruit a replacement. I hope he or she picks up a few ideas from my classroom that will make his or her classroom run more smoothly. They won't know what they are getting into.

The workforce is changing. Many of my students will hold jobs that have not been invented yet. (Can you imagine if I told my high school counselor that I wanted to be a webmaster or a network manager?) Even if my students know what jobs they will settle on (after the normal career changes), they -- like me -- probably have no clue what skills that job will require. I didn't realize that managing restroom passes and spare pencils would take more effort than teaching slopes and intercepts.

Once upon a time, we teachers would develop answers for that annoying question: "When will we use this?" We exchanged samples of real world applications, we traded stories of math-intensive careers (from airline pilots to nurses), and we suggested pithy replies ("you'll use this Wednesday... on the test!"). Recently we have been laughing at the question. How can I possibly predict how you will use this? I don't even describe the job market and skill sets of the future. But I know that employers want someone who is trainable, teachable. So practice by allowing me to teach you this now.




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