Of course I have problems, I’m a math teacher


Okay, that’s an old joke, but I really do have a problem.

We place some really unrealistic expectations on teachers, and people who teach math and English get the worst end of it in my experience.

I teach statistics and that means that I’m going to assume students have some basic knowledge of algebra.

If a student doesn’t remember or never learned what 7! Means, I can handle that.

(For those of you who need a refresher, that’s not a surprised 7 but rather, 7 factorial which is 7*6*5*4*3*2   . It’s also *1 but that’s redundant)

If you don’t know that you use an * instead of x for multiplication when writing code, that’s not a big deal.

However, there comes a point where I just cannot cope and teach you statistics. That’s somewhere between not understanding what a square root is and not knowing how to use a solve an equation like (5/37) / (4/26)

Let me be perfectly clear, I’m not saying you can never learn statistics nor that I can’t teach it to you ever. What I am saying is that I can’t teach it to you in the 10 or 16 or however many class sessions we have available.There is just not enough time for me to teach you the prerequisite information and then teach you the information you’re supposed to be learning for this course .

I hear people saying that teachers need to just try harder and be more dedicated. Years ago, I was at a conference where a young principal was held up to us as an example of how to run a school where low-income children are meeting math standards. He said , proudly,

“In my school, teachers are at the school every night until 6 o’clock and they’d are there on Saturdays for extra tutoring. If you can’t make that commitment, you aren’t welcome at my school.”

Skipping the arrogance of calling it MY SCHOOL, let’s just examine this requirement for an extra 20 hours work for the same pay. Don’t these teachers have their own children to go home to? Even if they don’t, even if they just want to go to hot yoga class before heading home to grade papers for two hours, how is this okay?

Perhaps someone should be asking WHY students aren’t learning enough during the allotted hours.

I don’t know how students fall behind in the beginning. You’d have to ask the kindergarten and first grade teachers. My guess, based on some of the schools we work with, is poor attendance is part of it. Dr. Erich Longie wrote his masters thesis on the correlation between attendance and academic achievement . The most striking finding in his research, to me, was that at the reservation elementary school where his research was conducted, the average child missed A MONTH of school !

I try my best to be available to students and answer questions. Still, I have a problem that is NOT going to be solved by telling teachers to work harder, lose the deficit mindset or whatever other finger-pointing is going on today .

The subjects I teach require some prerequisites. I’m going to assume that you learned all of this before you get to me.

Biostatistics: Exponents , square roots, logarithms, factorial, decimals and fractions.

Epidemiology: All of the above plus normal distribution, variance and standard deviation, prevalence, incidence, relative risk, odds ratios and confidence limits are

I could go on but I’m sure you get the idea. There seems to be some weird notion among non-educators that if I just tried hard enough I could teach algebra, biostatistics and epidemiology all at the same time in the same amount of hours.

Look, there is a reason that college algebra is a whole course and that reason is that for many people it takes that long to learn the material. It doesn’t make sense to expect me to teach or students to learn 3 times as much material as is planned in the curriculum. I can do 110% pretty easily, 125  – 150% with a lot of effort from both me and the student , because I have been teaching a long time and have a lot of resources to draw on, but there is a limit .

In the same way, you cannot expect middle school teachers to teach everything from division through decimals and then teach algebra on top of that all in the time you have allotted for the algebra class.

What can we do then? Well, one good idea that pompous principals had is that students need more time. Have teachers available after school and weekends and PAY them to be there.

Get kids to go to tutoring after school, on weekends and in the summer. That’s an issue that doesn’t seem to get addressed often enough. When students aren’t coming to school during the regular  hours, how do you expect the to come to school outside of that? Find out why your students aren’t coming to school. I can imagine a lot of reasons but I don’t know. They’re your students .

I do know that if you don’t find out the answer any supplemental programs you have planned don’t have much chance for success.

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