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The Logic of Teaching Math: Why I Left my Underpaid, Overworked Job in the Non-Profit Sector for My Underpaid, Overworked Job Teaching Young People How Not to be Afraid of Decimals

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Black chalkboard with white chalk printed math equations all over it

During my first year, a more experienced teacher friend told me to keep a journal of all the awesome things that happen and the reasons why I became a math teacher. He said it would get me through the hard days, weeks, or months. So allow me to share with you my list of reasons why I teach mathematics:

When meeting new people, a question you are often asked is,” So what do you do for a living?” Seems like an innocent enough getting-to-know-you kind of question. Before I became a teacher, I worked two part-time non-profit/movement jobs in Detroit. The getting to know you conversation would go something like this:

Them: “So, what do you for a living?”

Me: “Oh, I am a bookkeeper and program manager for a small non-profit made up of union members who were working to bring the ‘movement’ back into the labor movement. We are educating about the importance of ground up, rank and file organizing in order to overthrow the entrenched leadership of the arguably most powerful labor union in the country!”

Them (confused, uncomfortable, or kinda angry but hiding it): “Oh … wow.

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That’s really interesting.”

Me: “Yeah, it really is. That’s just my first job, though. I’m also a coordinator of a network of media makers and community organizers who use media as a tool to make connections in their communities, changing people from media consumers to media producers, organically growing and sustaining exciting social movements … oh … where are you going? … Oh … Okay! It was nice to meet you!”

What a relief it was when I changed jobs to something that supplied a much more simple answer. Little did I know that although my answer is simple, it strikes fear into the hearts of most people I encounter. Now, when they ask me what I do for a living, I conjure up my most winning, non-threatening smile, pause and hope I’ve built up enough social capital by this point in the conversation so that they don’t run away. Then I say:

“Oh, I’m a math teacher.”

I was unpleasantly surprised with the reactions I got (get) to my current endeavor to change the world. The most common response is, “Wow. I’m SOOO bad at math,” with a smile and a nudge and a wink, wink. I’m not sure if they want me to be sympathetic, conspiratorial, impressed, or forgiving, but they are happiest when I graciously change the subject or give them an exit to go make small talk with someone who doesn’t bring up their worst school memories simply by standing next to them.

I often find myself after one of these conversations, or, more likely, at the end of a long school day, having to re-center and reconnect with my reasons for doing this in the first place. During my first year, a more experienced teacher friend told me to keep a journal of all the awesome things that happen and the reasons why I became a math teacher. He said it would get me through the hard days, weeks, or months. So allow me to share with you my list of reasons why I teach mathematics:

Reason #1: Well, somebody has to do it.

Americans are terrified of mathematics. Why it’s socially acceptable to be so bad with numbers is a mystery to me. If I was an English teacher, no one would casually tell me “Wow, I’m SOOOOO bad at reading and writing,” laughing it off over cheese dip and cheap wine. Most of us would feel some type of way about this. It would be alarming! Societies all over the world have/do take this on, and develop strategies and campaigns to fix it! We sort of do that here with math. Based on all the lip service and testing focus on mathematics (many times taking away from equally important subjects and learning explorations, like the arts), you would think the US is on the fast track to math success.

But in our national craze to address the math problem, there isn’t a whole lot of emphasis on actually teaching it. Schools are judged on their ability to get students to pass standardized exams. Have you ever taken a test prep class for the SAT, MCAT, LSAT, or a commercial driver’s license? Boring. And you don’t really remember much once the test is over. Think about doing that every weekday for 12 years—and you’re 15 years old. Welcome to the modern American classroom, where teaching has been reduced to a long training for an arduous task that has little applicable skills anywhere else in your life.

There are many of us, though, who aren’t down with that, and instead elect to teach. But many that try don’t stick around. In New York City, the average math teacher lasts 3-5 years. Imagine my surprise when I entered my fourth year of teaching, still getting my feet on the ground, and people started referring to me as an experienced math teacher! I just figured out how to actually differentiate a lesson and now I was supposed to run an entire department. Yikes! Teaching is scary! But also awesome. And that is what I do. I wake up every morning, and hope my inquiry-based practice, cheesy jokes, firm but gentle guidance, and constant insistence that they are, in fact, mathematicians, elicits confidence, critical thinking, and mastery of algebra.

Reason #2: It is a social and economic justice issue.

There are a lot of statistics out there that cite failing high school algebra class as one of the main obstacles to graduation. Now, being a math teacher who teaches critical analysis of statistics (rule of thumb number one: correlation does NOT automatically mean causation), the statistics themselves are quite alarming. In states like West Virginia where students have to take exit exams to earn their diplomas, 1/3 of the students can not pass the math portion. And that’s if they get that far. If you take a sample of transcripts across the country, you will see twice as many F’s and D’s in math classes than in any other subject.*

Causation or correlations aside, Math class is a gatekeeper to higher education. “Many colleges seek to raise their status by setting a high mathematics bar. Hence, they look for 700 on the math section of the SAT, a height attained in 2009 by only 9 percent of men and 4 percent of women.”* I am teaching students who are very likely to drop out. Most have not had access to the kind of education that more affluent students receive at private or more well-resourced public schools, making it even more difficult to achieve these scores. Getting them to understand math, have number sense, and become better critical thinkers, is imperative to get them into institutions of higher learning. That is really the only way to achieve financial independence in this country if you don’t already come from a wealthy background.

It’s also important to mention here, that while I’m busy working to undermine capitalism in order to end it, we live in a classed society where marginalized students find themselves, through circumstances outside of their immediate control, on the bottom. That sucks, so there’s also the very pragmatic reason for math literacy that many students give me when I ask them how math applies to their life: “To learn how to count my money, miss.” While I would like them to think a little deeper about this question, it’s true! I would add, also, to learn how to save it and not get it taken away from you. As they come of age and take control of their own finances, they often become prey to banks and other financial institutions’ exploitative credit cards and loans with variable and high interest rates. While money isn’t everything, it sure does make life a whole lot easier when you don’t have to be constantly worrying about it. Financial stability frees you up to pursue your passions and live life more fully. This goes beyond an economic and social justice issue, and is actually about our right to self-determination and happiness, which we’re all supposed to have as people living in this country … right …. Right?

Reason #3: To give youth the tools to speak in a way that people will listen.

The reason I got into teaching in the first place was my commitment to making sure that young people have the chance to be heard. Not a lot of weight is given to their opinions and voices, and for better or worse, being able to back up your opinion with numbers is one way to get people to listen up. You then move from a kid who just has an opinion to a kid who has a researched opinion backed up with data, and you are taken more seriously. Young people are intelligent, creative and powerful. The only way we are ever going to change society so that more of us are getting out of life alive is to use the talents and brilliance of all of us. So we better honor them, give them the tools they need, and for the love of God, listen!

Reason #4: To challenge students’ beliefs that are not actually useful.

There is a deeply held belief among my students (and, as stated above, many adults) that they just don’t have the chromosome that allows them to appreciate the beauty of the quadratic formula. For at least the first month with every new class I teach, it feels like most of my work is to get everyone to quiet their fears, be open to the possibility of success, and question this “truth” they constructed that they are really bad at math. And guess what? The students that come to class, focus on their assignments, are willing to ask questions and follow expectation number four in my classroom (don’t give up!), do just that. They prove to themselves that they can do it. And if they think they can, then they will, and they might even (gasp) begin to like it, and low and behold, your whole experience changes. This is one of my most important tasks as a teacher, and I go meta with this one, people: If you can unlearn this belief that you’ve held for pretty much your whole life, you can unlearn so many more. Think about what else young people will start to question about not only themselves, but their families, communities, countries, and the world. This is exciting stuff!

Reason #5: Math is REALLY cool.

No, seriously, it is! This is the moment I leave my stuffy closet behind and come out to you as a NYC Teaching Fellow.** My thoughts on this program will take up a whole other two thousand words (coming soon!), but for today’s purposes, I can tell you that I was not thrilled when they told me that I could join their alternative teaching certification program, but I wasn’t going to be licensed in social studies or English. I was going to teach math. While I was trying to figure out if I was gonna move forward with this, a friend advised that if I was really committed to education justice, then math is the place to be—and that it is also really fun!

And let me tell you, he was right. It is fabulous! Teaching math was the first time I really began to understand it. I do a lot of work in my classroom to promote meaning making and personal connection through contextual application of mathematics, and that is all awesome and well and good. But it is also awesome and well and good to do math for math’s sake, to understand the patterns and rules and poetry of numbers (yeah, I said, it: poetry of numbers) all on their own. Not only does it promote critical thinking skills needed to problem solve both inside and outside of the classroom, but it is a cool lens through which you can understand the world. It’s really a beautiful science, and that discovery is something I work to pass on to my students.

So there you have it: my math manifesto of sorts. This is what I would tell you about at the party if you weren’t afraid of me, or assume I was going to make you calculate decimals over cocktails. So next time you encounter a math teacher, don’t run away screaming or try to break the ice with math phobia. Ask them about how awesome their job is.


*These and many more good statistics were the only redeeming qualities in a whack New York Times op-ed about how we shouldn’t require students to learn algebra.

**The New York City Teaching Fellows is a an alternative teaching certification program that recruits people to leave their current professions and become teachers in high needs subject areas in NYC. It is very similar to the model of Teach for America, with some important and notable difference (which I will address soon). Here’s their website.