Monday, January 30, 2006

A Tale of Two Math Teachers

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and

anyone paying attention to educational trends knows that politicians of every stripe wish we had more math and science teachers who can actually teach those subjects, just as they wished when the Cold War factored in everyone's life, rather than occupying space in history texts. Evgeny Zamyatin said that history is a helix. It made sense when I read it thirty years ago, and it makes more sense now that I've seen more events cycle back around to remarkable familiarity.

Like everyone else, I've been through it, which makes me an expert. Couple that with the fact that I live at least 75 miles from all but the barest handful of those who read this, and I merit quotable status. And just for the record, I do realize I'm talking about more than two math teachers in what follows. The title just felt better this way to this English teacher (ret.).

I had a miserable excuse for a math teacher as an eighth grader. I remember only three things from that class: he leaned against the doorway as he talked to the class, casually swinging his right leg and kicking Charlie, the kid cursed by the alphabet with the first seat inside the door. He threw chalk at anyone he deemed inattentive. He once assigned 60 problems as punitive homework (which we bribed the resident genius to do, and to let the rest of us copy). And I remember that that was the only year he taught there. He was shuffled on in the network of small school districts in southern Minnesota, and (I hope) eventually on to employment of another sort.

Then came Mr. F (that's not a grade, just the first letter of his last name), my high school Algebra I and Geometry teacher. And no, it wasn't all one course; I had him for two years in that small high school. When it came down to it, he had all the freshmen for Algebra I and all the sophomores for geometry. He was friendly, almost jovial.

And Mr. F knew more about the Civil War than anyone I've known before or since. I've read several of Bruce Catton's books, and my brother-in-law is a Civil War buff and history teacher, but Mr. F would have wiped our combined backsides without reaching for any paper.

Mr. F also knew exactly how many theorum memorizations ahead or behind last year's lesson plans this year's class was. Or where we were in relation to the class a decade ahead of us. But he ended up teaching us more about General Lee's horse than he did about congruent triangles. I acquired my understanding of Pythagoras, and how handy that darned theorum could be, somewhat later.

Mr. F was followed by Mr. K, who taught Algebra II and what's more commonly seen now as Trigonometry/Pre-Calculus, though it was called something more like Senior Math on our schedules back in that day. King K, we called him, and he was indeed imperious. If you had no vision of college, you avoided King K at any cost. If you had a glimpse of college on the horizon, you took a deep, summer-long breath, and entered his realm for two years.

Mr. K had worked outside of education: in wartime shipyards as a pipefitter, in a factory as an operating engineer. He was an inventor, with a patent or six to his name. He had somewhere along the line acquired a teaching degree in math and in physics, and he had devoted his life to passing on his knowledge and enthusiasm for the utility of advanced mathematics and of physics. Years after I graduated from college, I was still calculating square roots in my head for the mental exercise.

I won't belabor the going-to-school-in-Belgium thing that inspired my previous posts; I will say that I was not particularly challenged in my math classes there (but then my chosen curriculum wasn't math-heavy, either).

Of course, college algebra followed soon after graduation, but by that time I was bored with algebra. My mind doesn't handle the repetitive well, so my work in that course was careless. I coasted to a grade that didn't jolt my GPA too badly.

When my future wife decided to go back to college and major in elementary education, it wasn't the college math professor who got to see the light in her eyes when she finally understood the concept of numbers in bases other than 10. I had that privilege, thanks to the foundation that had been laid years before by the King.

Much of what I've said makes the King look like an excellent math and science teacher. I don't think that's the case at all, though those of us going on to become doctors and lawyers and pharmacists and teachers and engineers received an appreciated background. But what of those who went on to become the very same pipefitters and operating engineers that he had been? His inaccessible nature (to all but the math- or college-inclined) made the math and physics they would need and use on a daily basis inaccessible to them. They should have been able to get them in high school, but they couldn't because of the aura that surrounded the King. They took bookkeeping* instead (not that that didn't serve them well).

My dog posted some time ago, before he decided to post nothing more than an occassional joke, that a good teacher is identifiable by the fact that students are engaged with the material. I agree with him, but would expand that definition to emphasize that ALL students are engaged by a truly excellent teacher, not just those willing to put aside trepidation.

So we have a dilemma. Half-century-old concerns revisit us wearing slightly different clothes, and our nation's leaders (both in education and in politics) beat their breasts and call for more math and science teachers. Do we seek them via recruitment from industry and alternative licensure? I don't think the private sector or licensure are THE answer, though they may well prove to be part of the bandaid we put on the problem. We really need to revisit the term "highly qualified" and figure out what we mean by that. I'd have much prefered to have excellent teachers than highly qualified ones.

*I know that a more current term would be accounting, but "accounting" doesn't have three double letters in a row.

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