How a Math Teacher Can Change Lives

I was in the 4th grade. We were studying geometry. Mrs. Wilburn was the teacher.

I read the definition of a square in the textbook:

A square is a polygon with four equal sides and four equal angles.

I read the definition of a rectangle:

A rectangle is a polygon with four sides and four equal angles.

I thought, “Okay, then a square is also a rectangle.”

Hoping to be validated and praised, I went to Mrs. Wilburn and asked, “So a square is also a rectangle, right?”

“No,” she said, “a square is a square and a rectangle is a rectangle. A square is never a rectangle.”

So I went back to my desk and read the definitions again. And I thought about it. And I read the definitions. I went back to her desk because now I was thoroughly weirded out.

“But the book says that a rectangle has four sides and four equal angles. A square has four sides and four equal angles. So isn’t a square also a rectangle?”

“No, a square has four equal sides and four equal angles. A square isn’t a rectangle.”

This was the turning point in my math life.

I had two choices:

  1. The blue pill: Believe Mrs. Wilburn and thus believe I wasn’t competent to do math because my logic was clearly faulty.
  2. The red pill: Believe myself and trust my logic.

Swallowing the blue pill, choice 1, would mean that for the rest of my life I would hate math. I would say things like, “I’ve never been good at math,” and “I switched my major in college because what I really loved required too much math.”

But if I took the red pill, it would mean that I would become a math vigilante. Regardless of the topic in math, I would know that I could figure it out no matter what anyone else said.

I would believe and quote a favorite professor, Dr. Fitzgibbon (aka Fitz) when he said: “Once you realize we are all idiots, only then can you do math.”

And I would start a math blog.

I chose the red pill.

I’ll put money on it that 90% of people have similar stories to tell.

They might not have such outwardly facing results like a blog, but some do.

They might not have become math vigilantes or math incompetents – these are the two ends of the spectrum. My extremist personality causes me to swing wildly and severely in one direction.

But I’ll bet that anyone with a story like this, took a turn in their math learning.

Teachers have an incredible power to affect students.

With this power comes the responsibility to talk to our students. Really listen to them. And learn from them. It’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to be confused. Our job is to facilitate learning, not know everything.

We should welcome questioning. Welcome the alternate method. Welcome the new viewpoints.

Remember, we’re all idiots – we all have to think, be confused and sort things out. Even the PhD math professors.

The difference between a student and us is that we don’t let questions or confusion stop us from struggling through to the solution. Even if it’s a different solution that what we’re used to.

Instill that confidence in your students and you’ll be successful in teaching them.

What do you think? Join the discussion by commenting or join #HSMath chat for homeschool and classroom math teachers who unite to find better ways to convey math concepts.

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7 Responses to How a Math Teacher Can Change Lives

  1. Great post! Glad you are a rebel, my friend!

    I wrote a post about my story with math under the heading Math on the Brain, if you are interested. 🙂

  2. Bon, another brilliant post! I really like the way you write, and I reckon you and I would get along great. I visited Houston in 2008, and I liked Texans then – y’all are very honest, straight forward talking folks!

    But I digress.

    I also had some “dumb” teachers who tried to convince me that they were right and I should just take the blue pill. Like you, I refused.

    This really hits at the heart of teaching – good or bad. What messages are we sending our students when we respond to them? I cannot describe how passionately I feel, with you, that teachers have an awesome responsibility to our students and to their future opinions about themselves, and about the world.

    Simple, thank you.

    • Thanks, Peter!

      I wonder how to win those teachers over. What do they need to losen up and be okay with allowing students to discover and even surpass them in knowledge and understanding?

  3. This semester I was given 13 students from the 9th grade with extremely low math skills/grades. They knew they were in this class because the were not good math students. I started the class with a quote I read somewhere( maybe here). “If you hate math, it’s not because you are bad at math, it’s because you had a bad experience in a math class room.” I gave several examples of what could have happened, including what had happened to me that made me hate geometry and almost kept me from becoming a teacher. I also allowed them to share but with NO names of teachers being given At parent conferences a month later, I had several parents who were indisbelief at how well their child was doing, and I told them about the quote above. A few parents even commented that their child had told them about the quote and had discussed their experience.
    The class will end in three weeks. I have over 50% of the class with A/Bs. I’m so proud of them. They have worked hard, done most all the hw assignments, and many have overcome their math anxiety.

    • How wonderful, Mel!

      I can’t wait to hear how they end up doing.

      You know – it doesn’t matter what grade they get in the end. The fact that they are engaged and have a positive outlook says it all!

      Yay, Mel!

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