This writing is an assignment for Justin Lanier’s Math is Personal smOOC. The first prompt was to “start writing an account of the story that you tell to yourself about what your mathematical experiences have been.”
This is a difficult thing for me to write about (which is the reason I was interested in the course in the first place). It is difficult because I don’t feel that I am the ordinary math teacher who grew up loving math and having a passion for it. Nor am I the ordinary math teacher who grew up struggling with math and decided to teach in order to help others who struggle. (At least those are the two most ordinary stories I hear…particularly during interviews).
My story is different than those. I excelled in math classes. Actually I excelled in everything, but math stood out because fewer people excelled. But I certainly didn’t love it. I didn’t have a passion for it. But I also had no idea what mathematics was. I was never exposed to finding patterns or structure. I was never exposed to posing problems. I was never exposed to figuring out something mathematical on my own. Heck, I was never (really) exposed to anything remotely “real-world”. In other words, I was never exposed to mathematics. And that, quite frankly, pisses me off.
It makes me angry for two reasons. First, I paid a price for this lack of exposure. In my junior and senior engineering courses, I lacked the ability to apply much of the math that I had been taught. (Yes, even my college math courses taught very procedurally – here’s how you do it, now do it). I can recall several times in those engineering courses, and even at my actual engineering jobs, being embarrassed by my inability to apply math to novel situations. (This is why Shawn Cornally’s “Confessions of an AP Scholar” hit home with me).
Second, I didn’t know that I actually had a passion for mathematics. You would think if you pretty much aced every math class through Calc 4, you might at some point find that you liked math. But alas, this did not happen. In fact, this didn’t truly happen until a couple of years ago when I read Paul Lockhart’s “A Mathematician’s Lament”. That spurred me to read more and as it turns out, I really do like mathematics.
I think the saddest part of all of this is that I taught for a good four years before this realization. That means that I had four years of students who learned math (the same way I was taught) from a teacher who lacked passion. If I could find them, I’d apologize to each and every one of them. And it’s these kinds of thoughts and recollections that drive my teaching presently.