This blog records my adventures as a stats teacher (and lately in other roles) in a near-ideal situation: small classes, supportive administration and colleagues, motivated students, and lots of resources. I also get to create my own syllabus. This creates opportunity and obligation. I want to try some stuff that will be new to me and to the students, but it needs a record. This blog is part of that record.
If you don’t know me from elsewhere, it will help to get a biographical sketch: the 2008–09 school year was my first. So I’m relatively new but not totally green. I’m also old for a new teacher, now in my mid-sixties. But I’ve spent most of my career in the ed biz, largely as a free-lancer, writing math and science curriculum materials and doing professional development. How could I dare to do that without having been a day-to-day classroom teacher? Respectfully, I hope.
Back in the dark ages, I studied astronomy and astrophysics. For me the most gorgeous thing about math is that you can use it to reflect the universe, whether nearby or far away. For all the considerable wonder of abstraction, a function is at its most beautiful when it models real data.
After astronomy, I did a Ph.D. in science and mathematics education; it seems to me that that exalted degree is chiefly about persistence, which was exactly what I needed at the time. My dissertation was not brilliant, but it got done. It was entitled Sex Differences in Student Attitudes Towards Computers, in which I showed conclusively what anyone with half a brain knows: in general, girls are more complicated than boys.
I did that while working for EQUALS, a sex-equity math education outfit at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. There I wrote what occasionally gets my nametag recognized at conferences, a collection of math problems for groups called Get It Together. More importantly, I got to work with the staff at EQUALS, who taught me a huge amount about working together and about teachers and schools, and gave me the chance to work with hundreds of math teachers at all grade levels and with a wide range of experience, expertise, and content knowledge.
I left EQUALS in 1992 and became a freelancer. I’ve done a variety of things since then, including helping to design Fathom, a data-analysis package for high school published by Key Curriculum Press.
But except for five weeks teaching high-school math at an Upward (not Outward) Bound program and a one-year stint as a sabbatical replacement at Mills College, I had not even been an actual in-the-trenches teacher. One-shot lessons? Plenty. But being responsible for a year of the mathematics education of actual children? Nope.
So when the chance arose in 2008, I joined the math faculty of an independent (PC term for private) school full-time. That was another sabbatical replacement, so the next year, I got only half-time, teaching chorus and orchestra. In the third and fourth years, they expanded math by one section, so I got it: statistics (not AP), a 20% gig, one class, meets every other day for 75 minutes. This left time for the continuing outside work, some of which I field-tested in my class.
My colleagues in public schools look at my job and say that yeah, it’s in the classroom, but it doesn’t really count. I can see their point. I don’t have to put up with a hundredth of the trouble they do. I get books. I get paper. The copier usually works. I get computers for every kid, and there are really good IT people who keep everything working. My colleagues are terrific mentors. I get a telephone that can dial out. I am never in fear for my personal safety. And get this: our school has no PA system. Imagine: no morning announcements.
Best of all are the kids themselves, who are usually motivated and always interesting.
Yet the students are still high-school students. We have drinking and drugs. We have family problems. And with our many advantages come particular pathologies, for example, anxiety about college, which can translate into relentless grade-grubbing and the unnerving chop-chop-chop of the helicopter parents. (I know, public-school colleague: you’d trade. But you are made of sturdier stuff than I.)
But teaching is still hard. It’s a Parkinson’s Law problem (“work expands to fill the space available”): Getting it right is still impossible. However advantaged our students, what happens in the classroom has to be worth their attention, or they won’t give it.