I recently taught an algebra course to students pursuing teaching careers in subjects other than math (social studies, languages, history, reading, etc.). This was a very challenging, but enlightening experience for me. Think about your passion for a moment, whether it’s art, finances, real estate, etc. Now imagine teaching that topic to a room full of people who are not interested and have no problem letting you know their feelings throughout the lesson. That was me. It was somewhat heart-breaking, but my reality at the time.
Prior to teaching the course I was warned about the group, but nothing would prepare me for the lackluster reception I received from this group. Several weeks of “I don’t like math” or “why do I have to learn this” can wear down even the most patient of us. I remained professional, but shared my feelings as well. After all, this was a course with discourse. So why not take advantage of all the teachable moments.
So here are a few pieces of advice I would give to non-math educators.
- What you think and feel will project onto your students.
The attitudes of many of my students really made me think about the experiences of so many people who really believe they hate math. As I sat in that classroom week after week it became clear to me that those feelings were once projected onto so many people, even the students sharing them at that moment. They never had a chance. For example, a Kindergarten teacher taking my course once asked me why they needed to learn the material, since they will never use it. (Do you have any idea how many times I’ve heard that from my students through the years?) I took a step back and thought about the question for a moment. I didn’t have an appropriate answer, so I just stood there in silence and let the words fall on our ears. My feelings were of pity for the poor students who would one day sit in from of that teacher with those negative thoughts and feelings about math.
- Give what you expect to receive from your students.
One day I collected homework to make sure my students were completing their assignments and making an effort. One student crammed a crumbled piece of paper into my hands. The page was carelessly ripped from a spiral notebook, and not from the perforated edge. I looked at it and thought about its condition for a moment. No, this is unacceptable, I thought. I look at the student. I asked her if she would accept this from one of her students. She said “no.” I returned the paper to her and said “then I will not accept it from you.” I was appalled that she thought it was okay to hand in something she would not accept herself. Hmmmmm….
- Try to view things from your student’s point of view.
As frustrating as these few weeks were, I remained professional and compassionate. I thought about my students and what they must have been going through. Here they are taking this required course in a subject they may never use again. To make matter worse, the instructor was bubbly and passionate about the material. So after week 1 I decided to look at things from the point of view of my students. I still had to cover the material, but I added examples from the various subjects they would teach and tried to hear them out when they vented. I was honest with them and shared some of my own experiences with non-math subjects (I did not like History courses and gave my high school teachers a really hard time – karma). Once I became a little empathetic, the weeks felt lighter and the students smiled more. They still didn’t love math, but the atmosphere in the classroom was more pleasant. I even got a cake and snacks for my birthday!
- Treat your instructor the way you want your students to treat you.
My students were very hard on me, in the beginning. While I understood their resentment toward the class, I didn’t appreciate their treatment towards me, the instructor. One day, they will be in front of a class full of students who do not like or want to learn what they are teaching. The hope is that their students will separate the course from the teacher and not treat the teacher like they are the course. As I stated earlier, I gave my history teachers a hard time. I got every bit of that back in one semester. It was brutal!!! When I remembered my treatment towards those teachers, I laughed. It was my turn to get back what I dished out all those years ago. It was a valuable lesson for me. When you attend PD (or take courses) please treat the presenter/facilitator the way you want your students to treat you.
- It’s okay to step out of your comfort zone for the greater good.
Every now and then, take time to learn about a subject that doesn’t interest you. It will broaden your thought process and “stretch” your brain a bit. It’s okay to hang out in your comfort zone, but leaving it every now and then will aid in your professional (and personal) growth. For years I rejected this idea, it just didn’t sit well with me or make sense. Then one day I decided I would spend a year stepping out of my comfort zone. It was very uncomfortable. One thing I made it a point to do was to attend events (workshops, seminars, etc.) alone. That’s not something I usually did or that was easy for me to do. I did it for one year. It was refreshing, I learned a lot, and I met new people. Now, when I have to go to an event alone, it’s easy to do. It’s now part of my comfort zone. I even introduce myself to complete strangers – not an easy thing to do for me.
I hope this advice resonates with someone out there. If you know a non-math educator, please share this blog with them: they may never stumble upon it on their own.
Do you have additional advice for non-math educators?