MSRI Talk, a.k.a. This Post Is Too Long

On March 27, 2014 I participated in a panel discussion at MSRI about how my math degree did or did not prepare me for teaching math. Some of you gave me some excellent responses to my earlier solicitations regarding this talk, and you will see your words in my slides.

Slides: MSRI

Video of the talk.

It was a really interesting presentation to be a part of. I enjoyed hearing the three other teachers share their own perspectives on this topic. And there were some great questions from the audience. I got to talk about my experiences in my pre-service program and my early years of teaching at two schools that provided truly inspirational professional development*–especially to a newly-formed teacher. [Ilana Horn coincidentally blogged about both of these schools recently (using pseudonyms for the schools). I was all like: “Hey, I taught there! … Yep, there too.”]

My “big lessons” learned from my college math major, which I outlined in an earlier post, were:

  1. I don’t hate math.
  2. Math is supposed to make sense–even when math doesn’t make sense, it makes sense.
  3. Seemingly different ideas in math are connected, often strongly & deeply.

So, here’s some meat on that skeleton:

I really didn’t like math when I was in high school. I have some horror stories to tell, let me just say. And some stories that aren’t horror-esque, but that aren’t rainbows and kittens either. As a teacher myself now, I am very hesitant to refer to others as “bad teachers.” I don’t believe that this type of language is useful; it doesn’t serve either the teacher, or the one judging the teacher–neither party can learn anything from this negative labeling. That being said, I do believe that several of my high school math teachers were ineffective and actively aided and abetted increasing my (already existing) dislike of mathematics. [I do want to point out that there were also some major stand-outs-in-a-good-way throughout my time in school–my 8th grade algebra teacher, my community college pre-calc instructor were two individuals who got me interested and (almost) excited about doing math.]

When I got to college, I had already decided that I would hold off on declaring my major but that it sure as heck wasn’t going to be math. The best thing that happened to me was that I failed my math placement exam, meaning I didn’t pass out of the general ed math requirement. I decided to “get it over with” and enrolled in the math course my first semester–another good thing, as I probably wouldn’t have been able to complete all the graduation requirements for my major if I’d started later. And I really liked it.

You probably saw that one coming, right?

I liked the class because of points 2) and 3)–It made sense, and I was able to see the connections between ideas. My professor was super-passionate about math and got me interested enough that I decided to take Calculus the following semester. I think it might have helped that I’d already taken the equivalent of this class (and calculus too, btw) in high school, so things were already familiar, which allowed me to focus more on the big picture. By the time I was in Calc II, I’d already figured out that I needed to double up on Calc III and Linear Algebra the following semester and take 2 math classes each semester thereafter in order to complete a major in mathematics. And still I resisted declaring myself a math major! These “I don’t like math” beliefs get dug down deep, folks. It takes a lot to weed them out and dismantle them.

So, I got to share my story with the college math folks at MSRI. And now with you… One idea though, that I felt was worthy of consideration, was that I didn’t–and still don’t–know how much college and university math departments should be concerned with preparing math teachers. Obviously, not every math major is going to become a teacher. I certainly didn’t plan on teaching when I graduated. [Unwitting theme of this post: Things that Bree didn’t plan on doing: They just keep happening…]

There needs to be consideration for preparing math teachers within math departments. It would be kind of foolish to not think about this at all. But they need to strike a balance between serving all of their different constituencies.

I think my college math department did an excellent job of helping me meet my goals when I was in school. I wanted to take math classes that interested me and that opened my eyes to new ideas. And I got that in spades. Later, when I decided to teach math, not all of those classes turned out to be useful in my day-to-day work. And that’s okay. If I’d known that I was preparing to be a math teacher, I likely would have taken different classes. But I’m really glad that I took the classes that I did.


*At some point, someone should bug me to blog about this. Totes awesome experiences.


5 thoughts on “MSRI Talk, a.k.a. This Post Is Too Long

  1. I sometimes wonder how differently my life would have gone had I had better experiences with math when I was in school. I was “good” at math so much as I was able to follow the steps to solve contrived problems. Once I encountered “hard” problems (read: problems where you actually had to reason and problem solve), I shut down and hated math. I considered myself a phony because while I got A’s in every math class through my second semester of college calculus, I never felt like I actually knew what I was doing or what the point of it was.

    I’m a bit jealous that you went ahead and pursued math despite your own experiences in high school. It wasn’t until I met a passionate presenter at a math PD in one of my first years of teaching that it finally clicked what math is supposed to be about. I finally realized that I can do all kinds of math, and that it’s way more interesting than anything I learned when I was in school.

    • My middle and high school experience was similar, in that I was “good” at math, in the way you describe. I was able to remember how to perform procedures that I really didn’t understand the “why” behind and get the right answer. It had no meaning to me. My 8th grade algebra class was where I first encountered something I couldn’t memorize *and* I didn’t get: factoring. [I think I blogged about that some time ago.] It was basically the first time I had to make sense of math. And it felt really good when it–finally!–clicked for me.

      I think I got lucky in so many steps along the way. I had already had a couple of experiences that counter-exampled the narrative I’d constructed around math. I was lucky enough to have a professor who loved teaching and loved math, in a way that was obvious from my first class (actually from before my first class…funny story there.). Then, when I decided to become a teacher, I lucked out in getting dropped into “Septima Clark” for my student teaching internship. And then, two years later, I managed to squeeze in a little time at “Railside.”

      I’ve been super lucky.

  2. Thanks for this post, Bree. It great to read about this chapter of your automathography.
    Allow me to begin bugging you about the next chapter, per your request above. 🙂

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