teaching matters

I don’t really remember if I have talked about my stint in PhD school at length before. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics I was accepted directly into a PhD program at a very, very large state university.  My goal was to pursue a PhD in order to become a college professor.  For a couple of generations, my family has been educator-heavy:  my father was a college professor (he’s now retired); my mother is an elementary school gifted teacher; my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were both teachers, too.  It seemed a perfectly reasonable career path for me.  My part-time job through college was substitute teaching, so I was familiar with the day-to-day business of teaching.  I arranged all of my classes each semester to fall on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday schedule so I’d be free 2-3 days a week to teach.

So I arrived at graduate school with a specific goal:  to become a college mathematics professor. Sure, I had dabbled with the idea of being a lawyer/diplomat/etc. throughout college but it had become clear to me after four years that I only enjoyed two subjects enough to be serious about them:  mathematics and Russian.  I also enjoyed computer science and linguistics, but I didn’t spend enough time taking classes in either discipline to have the credentials to go to graduate school without a fifth undergraduate year.  I briefly considered Russian, but this was the early 90s, and Russia appeared to be descending into chaos; a PhD in Russian seemed to be a ticket to nothing more than reading Dostoyevsky in the original Russian.  So I settled on mathematics.

Looking back, I realize that I was good at Russian and mathematics for only three reasons:  I had some talent for languages, I was good at abstract thinking and I had young, enthusiastic and personable professors in both subjects. I’ve always thought of mathematics as a language:  I can’t understand why someone who is good with foreign languages wouldn’t have the skills necessary to understand the “grammar” and “vocabulary” of mathematics.  But without good teachers I would have lost interest in those subjects.  I love history now, for example, but my history professors in college (and high school, for that matter), were boring, pedantic and uninspiring.  It took me ten years after leaving school to rediscover my love for the subject.

To summarize my experience in PhD school:  I didn’t make it past the first year.
I didn’t enjoy my teachers.  They weren’t teachers.  They were researchers and writers who were forced by their sponsor – the university – to stoop down to teaching on occasion.   Conversely, I did enjoy teaching the intro to calculus classes I had to teach as part of my graduate stipend.  I think my students enjoyed them, too.  But one thing leapt out at me early in my stay:  I’d have to endure 5-6 years of horrendous “instruction” in areas I didn’t enjoy to become a college professor.

I think looking back I would have been happy enough to continue teaching intro to calculus.  It’s hard to understand how another five years of abstract mathematics would have enabled me to teach better.  It would have helped me write papers or do research, of course.  But I wondered as I dropped out why I couldn’t have been on a “college professor” track instead of a “college researcher/writer who teaches an occasional class” track.  The same thing can be applied to almost any discipline.  Could I be a good history teacher, for example?  I think I could, because I’m a good teacher.  I’ve taught enough training classes in my corporate positions, mentored enough staff and done enough speaking to realize that you don’t have to be an expert to educate.  And conversely, just because some of my professors in graduate school were brilliant at, say, field theory didn’t mean they could teach anyone how to tie their shoes.  They were clearly bored with the concept of instruction.

There’s a tired old saying that makes me grind my teeth every time I hear it – in my younger days I actually punched a fraternity brother who was mocking me with it:  “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.” Anyone who thinks that because they are an “expert” at something – sales, car repair, accounting, golf, whatever – that they can teach that subject should shut up and go run a course on that subject.  They should develop lessons:  not just a speech, but lessons.  They should try working with slow learners while challenging fast learners.  They should experience how easy it is to lecture and how hard it is to engage.  Too many people think they can teach, when all they can do is talk.

Good teachers have inspired me. The same can be said of good mentors.  My first manager in public accounting (now a partner) was a wonderful mentor and teacher.  She patiently worked with me my first couple of years to develop my accounting and auditing skills.  She was never too busy to explain and never impatient.  It took me another four years of working for petulant, irrational and mentally and emotionally abusive managers in the firm to realize how rare she was.  When it became my turn to mentor staff, I always remembered her example.  Being a good teacher made me far more effective in corporate life; it made my relationships with the people who worked for me better.  It made them more efficient, happier and more likely to turn around and train the people who worked for or with them well.

I’ll finish with another anecdote. When I started third grade my family very briefly moved to northern Illinois (I think we were there less than a full year) for my father to finish his graduate degree.  My parents jumped through hoops to get my brother and me into a good public school, rather than the faraway and dangerous public school we were zoned for.  Even then, I didn’t fit in with the kids there, and disliked most of my teachers.  One teacher, Ms. Zider, took it on herself to help me since I was struggling so.  She came up with extra lesson in geometry for me (this is third grade, keep in mind).  She worked with me at lunch and after school.  I was excited by the lessons and they are the only thing I remember from that long, largely sad year.  As an adult, I can better appreciate what she did:  she gave up her free time at lunch, time after school when she could have been finishing up lesson plans or doing paperwork to stay late with one friendless kid who was otherwise bored at school.  Teachers matter.

11 Replies to “teaching matters”

  1. Steve, this post is espcially interesting for me. I have been reading your blog for some time, but mostly working. Anyhow, I currently teach Math for a 2-year college. I really enjoy it, but because I only have a bachelors I am limited to teaching development level courses. So of course getting my masters is a priority. However, the issue is that I am not a M.S. in Math type person. I mean it's sort of strange. All I want to teach is College Algebra, maybe Finite Mathematics, but I need all of this Theoretical Complex Math to be “qualified” … and gettting a Master's in Education even one with some emphasis in Math does nothing for me.

  2. At least you followed things you actually liked and knew something about instead of just chasing the money.

    1. @J-Man: Wish I could say that was true – I did end up chasing the money by getting an accounting degree and master's…

    2. Can't fault you for chasing the money. It's what we all do. OK, at least 95% of us do.

  3. Good teachers are a rare breed, as all the literature that's been coming out has shown. Once school systems finally see this and start changing the way they hire and fire teachers, then we'll be off to a good start.

  4. For various reasons I won't go into I've taken or sat in on advanced algebra and calculus a few times now. Only until this semester is the subject actually interesting! Why? Because the class has a great teacher who breaks things down in a way that's easily understandable and he keeps the class engaged.

    Good teachers are indeed a rare breed. Its somewhat a shame that universities focus first on research and teaching second. Its also a shame the the teaching profession as a whole isn't respected and compensated enough.

  5. I really enjoy your blog. Love the anecdotes. After getting bs in econ & a masters degree in counseling had a stint as a career counselor at sdsu, (then a mba in finance) & recently 100 years in portfolio management. Just got hired as an adjunct at a local mba program to teach investing & portfolio management. I am excited to share my enthusiasm and experience! I’m fortunate to have maximized our investing and can teach without worrying about the pay!

  6. I totally agree that the way a teacher teaches makes all the difference.

  7. What an interesting post! And what makes it most interesting is that your disappointment with graduate school is so similar to the experience of those of us who were first-generation college students…it seems kind of surprising, given that you came from an academic family.

    My closest friend and I are both PhDs who taught (she still teaches) at a vast public university. Both from working-class families with parents who, at best, graduated from high school, we each went to graduate school wanting to work in academia. But neither of us had the faintest idea what that entailed. When you say to an adviser (mine was a departmental chair) “I want to pursue a Ph.D. with an eye to teaching on the university level,” not a single one of them will sit down with you and explain what a career academic does. Nor will they tell you that obtaining a doctorate says nothing about your intellect and everything about your capacity for bullsh**.

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