My mother was my first critic of my first educational treatise, written when I was a senior in high school. During my junior year, I had tried unsuccessfully to get transferred out of a geometry class taught by a teacher whose reputation had preceded her for years. In retrospect, she was a very bright woman who had emotional problems and spent the class talking about this, that and anything other than about geometry and left it to us to read the book, do the problems, and make presentations on the board. At that time, however, I wanted someone who taught. The math department head was more than familiar with her problems but when I asked for a transfer had told me that 1) I wasn’t a teacher and 2) I had only had her for three days; thus: how could I judge?
My father (who was not familiar at all with how school politics worked) tried to intercede on my behalf but was outmaneuvered by the high school bureaucracy/double talk. I managed to survive the semester with her, and the next fall when I was a senior, I decided to do the student body of the high school a favor and wrote a little pamphlet called “A Manual for Personal Objectors”.
The title was a take on the “Manual for Conscientious Objectors” which was required reading in the mid-60’s for those who were trying to escape the draft (and being shipped to Viet Nam) on the basis of religious and other grounds. I felt that trying to get out of a bad teacher’s class was as hard as getting out of the draft. I typed my treatise up on ditto masters (which was like a mimeograph that used that awful smelling solvent, and the print came out purple) that my mother had, since she was a teacher). I typed it in “landscape” mode so I could fold it over and bind it like a pamphlet. My mother ran off the pages at her school and because two-sided pages were unheard of for dittos, I then had to paste pages together to get a back-to-back, real pamphlet look. My mother helped me to glue them and we put the pamphlets together.
I started selling the pamphlets at school for 25 cents a piece which got me in a little bit of trouble at school, but that’s another story. One day my mother got mad at me for something I said to her (probably complaining about something I didn’t like about something she did) and she let me have it. It was one of those “After all I’ve done for you” type rants, and once she got going there was no stopping her. Among the things she mentioned was running off the dittos and helping me glue them together.
I knew at that point that I had lost this battle, but she wasn’t done by a long shot. “And another thing,” she said. “How do you think I felt when I read what you wrote about how teachers’ grading policies are unfair and you said ‘This is especially true of English teachers.’ ” She was an English teacher.
There was only one thing I could say, and I said it through tears: “I didn’t mean you, Mom.”
I often think of this when I hear complaints from students about a teacher as happened in a school where I taught. I was one of two math teachers for the seventh and eighth grades at the school—we had both been hired at the same time. I was friendly with the other math teacher and she would often tell me of the frustrations she was facing in her classes. I knew that we didn’t see eye to eye on math education, given that she was a fan of Jo Boaler, and she believed that memorization eclipsed understanding.
In that particular school, I was available for tutoring students prior to the first period, and some of her students would occasionally come in for help. In one case, a boy was having difficulty with proportion problems, such as 3/x = 2/5. I showed him how it is solved using cross multiplication (without explaining why cross multiplication works—I was after just getting him through the assignment). I ran into the boy’s father during the summer, and he made a point to thank me for helping his son. I found this odd since I had only tutored him maybe one other time. “He was getting D’s and F’s on his test and since you helped him, he started getting A’s and he ended up with an A- in the class.”
From what I knew about the teacher, I suspected that she offered little instruction, expected students to collaborate and discover, and make connections. As it turned out, there were many complaints to the school from parents and she was fired that year. I recall her telling me that she was not going to be rehired, that parents were complaining about her, and that she felt as if she were the victim of a witch hunt.
Since she had read one of the books I wrote, I’m fairly certain she knew we were on opposite sides of how math should be taught. But she never said anything about my methods, nor I about hers. I enjoyed the autonomy the school gave me to teach as I wished so I kept my thoughts to myself. I was friendly with her, and my wife and I had her over a few times.
There are those who might say it is my duty to speak up about how a teacher teaches. But in a school, we are in a fragile situation. There are vast differences in teaching philosophies within the teaching profession, but you have to work and get along with fellow teachers as well as the people in power. The tightrope I walk is remaining loyal to how I believe math should be taught, while finding the common bond with the other teachers and the administration. And more importantly, realizing that many teachers are victims of the indoctrination of ed school group-think which has dominated the education profession for many decades. In the meantime, I’ll continue to write my criticisms of math education—being careful to call out the group-think and its perpetrators.