Monday, August 28, 2006

From A Lonely Math Teacher On the Front Line

I, up until the point I found this site, seriously believed that my sorrow over the fact that the vast majority of my students are spoiled-rotten, grade-grubbing, wastes-of-oxygen was mine alone to bear. Imagine my surprise at finding out that others encounter the same problems. In reading all of this, I find comfort in knowing I am not alone.

So why do I keep doing it? Even when the sorrow sometimes makes me want to crawl into a corner and work on logic puzzles for a month? Because it has to be done. If I can affect just one student in every class, every year, then those students will become people who are more literate, who understand logic, who can engage in critical thinking, and who appreciate learning for the sake of bettering one's mind rather than learning solely for the practical applications, or worse for the sake of a GPA. If I walk away, there is no one left to fight the good fight.

The entryway to Plato's garden, where any young man wishing to become a leader of society came to study, said "Let no man destitute of mathematics enter here." Abraham Lincoln, on his own, studied the first ten books of Euclid in order to become "a better thinker." Some time since then education has become about job training rather than about enlightenment. I don't care if my students become engineers using multivariable calculus or housewives who balance checkbooks. I want them to study mathematics so that they learn the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning, so they learn how to communicate their reasoning, so they learn how to ask the right questions to solve a problem, so they recognize faulty logic enough not to be swayed by drivel they read in the news.

Despite the enormous pressure from kids, their parents, administrators, and even my colleagues, who all want me to give good grades to kids who show up and learn nothing, I refuse and I stay. In my class, grades are earned by demonstrating what you know and a C means adequate. Period. And while the other teachers are waving away kids with questions because they need to run off their scantrons and go home, I'll help students who want to learn and spend my free time giving individual, written feedback to each and every one of my students on their open-ended problems.

I believe in what I am doing and no amount of pressure is going to change what I hold so dear. Those handful of students I send out into the world each year, who understand the difference between learning and sitting, will hopefully become the people who will run the world someday, who will invent things to make my old age easier, who will take up the fight when I am gone, and who raise children with the same values. Somebody has to do it else we are doomed.

photo from