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22 December 2006

Mathematically (and Pedagogically) Challenged?

(This perhaps should have been two separate posts, since I have a lengthy riff on an ancillary issue in my note at the end. Oh, well.)

There were a few fireworks at the schoolhouse just before break, and sad to say they fit a familiar pattern.

My bratty but bright second period reports almost en masse to our math department chair, two doors down, for third period Algebra II. Now, I need to point out that this lady was my school-selected mentor for my first three years in the biz, and is as sweet and kind a person as I could have asked for to help me along. Perhaps because I am her son's age, she even bought me birthday presents while I was her mentee.

She fits a certain Southern "type" that is probably familiar to some of you. Prim and proper, a former pageant girl whose daughter followed in her footsteps (pageant-wise and teacher-wise), married to a well-known gent of the community, and a pillar of the community herself, she is outwardly the very essence of the Southern lady. But not far beneath the surface, there are obviously conflicted feelings, disappointments, and even bitterness that can be detected. I do not know the source of these in full, but I can tell you that (in my opinion) her three children, all above the age of thirty, are spoiled and take great advantage of her, but she mostly reacts to them with the occasional passive/aggressive comment, rather than just telling them to grow up, grow a pair, and stop PISSING HER OFF!

In my amateur-psychologist opinion, the place she transfers these frustrations to is the classroom. Every year, about half way through each semester, I start to hear bright kids tell me that she can't teach and that she's mean as hell to them. For a couple of years, I passed this off as kids being frustrated with upper level math and finding a scapegoat in place of pinpointing their own laziness. But after a while, I had to admit something wasn't right in her classes, or I wouldn't have kept hearing this repeatedly from even my favority non-whiners. I've refused up until now to even get in a protracted conversation with my students about it, for fear of allowing them to trash another teacher (much less my former-mentor) in my room.

Fast-forward to Monday, when she was out sick, and five of our common spoiled-but-talented girls took the opportunity to converge on Principal Goldberg with their complaints about their bad grades and their teacher's "hateful" comments to them. When they later told me what they had done, I was a little upset with them, because I thought a) going over her head without their parents being present wasn't going to help matters, but worsen them and b) they probably had some malice mixed-in with their motivations. However, after really listening to them, and to an independent (and reliable) outside source, I have come to these conclusions (not solely on my own):

1) My teacher friend simply doesn't have the ability to grasp upper-level mathematical concepts, at least not enough to get them across to anyone.* The kids all say she can only tell them one way to do a problem, and if they seek alternatives they are chastised. She originally was certified for middle-school, and though she got secondary-school licensure later, anything beyond Algebra I is beyond her expertise. My independent source, now a senior, said in order to maintain an "A" she had to take her book home every night and work through the examples from the chapter introductions, then go back and do the work based on what she had taught herself.

2) Because she has department seniority, she does not want to teach any lower level classes.

3) As a result of #1, my teacher friend gets very defensive with her honors classes, because they are challenging her and it obviously threatens her. When kids realize this, even if their original intentions are not ugly, they latch on like evil-little pit bulls; thus, there is an upsetting atmosphere in that classroom most every day.

4) My teacher friend has simply run out of patience, as well. She is near retirement, and unfortunately seems to be leaning to the "The hell with it, I'm almost out of here" mind-set.

I have no idea how this will end up - the class has a state End of Course test, and everyone is worrying about their grades and transcripts. The principal came and sat in on the class Tuesday, but I don't know anything beyond that. What I do know is that it is a shame, a darn shame, all around.

*Note: You will often hear certain teachers, administrators, and (prepare your boos and hisses) Doctors of Education say, in a mildly indignant tone, that "You can know your subject backwards and forwards, but if you can't teach it, you won't be any good as a teacher." At first glance, this may seem like a "no duh" point to make. But make no mistake, this is coded language for the following: only those who have been given the special knowledge that Education Department Gnostic Ministers can impart are really teachers.

In other words, following the academic trends of the last thirty or forty years, content doesn't matter, only form and presentation. As long as you present it in at least thirteen different (excuse me, I mean diverse) ways, it doesn't really matter what you are presenting. This way of thinking, of course, allows certain groups to protect turf and keep a stranglehold on who can enter the profession.

Whenever I hear the old "you might know it but can't teach it without the right methods" canard, I simply want to cry, "CRAP! CRAP! CRAP!" I guarantee you that for every one hundred people who have a complete grasp of any subject, you can only find one or two who are so devoid of social and communication skills that they can't get it across to others who have the prerequisite intelligence in place.

Don't buy it, don't believe it, don't even entertain the idea. The high majority of the time, if someone cannot successfully teach a subject, it is because they don't understand it themselves.

End of seminar.

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