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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Can a middle-aged professional become a math teacher?

We had an interesting visit yesterday from a local accountant who is considering making a mid-career switch and becoming a math teacher. He spent most of the day at Weston High School, talking with teachers and kids and observing classes. Actually, he did more than observe: he also participated, which was part of the point, since he wanted to find out what math teaching is all about these days.

Not that Weston is in any sense typical, but it was a good experience both for him and for us. He got to talk with me and also with a colleague who has successfully made such a mid-career switch (from engineering, not accounting, but the issues are the same). He visited one of my colleague’s classes and two of mine (one at each level), including a precalculus section where I let the students interview him for about 12 minutes; the idea had been to limit it to five minutes, but their questions turned out to be too good for that. Several questions concerned the Enron scandal (these kids were ten years old at the time; how do they know about Enron?), but my favorite questions were two that couldn’t have been further apart. One student asked the visitor how he has used the math he learned in high school; I loved his answer, which was something to the effect that he loved his high-school math classes and that he hasn't used the details, like the definition of cosine, but he most definitely has used the analytical skills that he learned in those classes. That’s exactly what I want my students to understand. A totally different question was, “What have you done to benefit humanity?” Perhaps not the question you would expect from Weston, but all the better for that.

In my Algebra II class, the students were working on projects, so my visitor walked around, listened to the students, and talked with them. At one point, a group of three sophomore girls asked me for some help on Excel, but I was trying to answer other students’ questions at the time, so I suggested that they should ask our visitor instead. They cheerfully did so, he responded in a helpful manner at an appropriate level, and they later expressed satisfaction with the outcome (and with the visitor as a potential teacher). This led to a brief conversation about the usefulness of having students interview teacher candidates, and I told them that one of the reasons I accepted the job offer from Weston eleven years ago was my positive reaction to a group of students who had interviewed me at the time.

It still isn’t easy to switch into teaching mid-career. Not that it’s easy to become a teacher fresh out of college either, but at least you haven’t become accustomed to the rhythms and demands of the office world in that case. Facing four groups of 20–24 teenagers each day — or five groups of 30 in some schools — is not the least like working with a group of adults on accounting or engineering problems. It’s far more exciting for most of us, but it brings its own challenges every day that aren’t dreamed of in the world of the office. We desperately need qualified math teachers, so we’re happy to have new recruits!

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