Monday, August 24, 2015

Back to School

Last week, we were busy with those last minute doctor’s and dentist appointments, scheduled just in time before our youngest went back to school. He is a college sophomore this year, and though he was quietly grumpy in the last days before I dropped him off, I will miss him.

Mostly I listen to books in the car, but the latest update to the Audible app is so bad I have to trick it into playing. My hack involves playing first a song using Apple’s Music app, and then interrupting it (without stopping it) to play the book (yes, I’ve tried other things, including uninstalling/reinstalling). This hack has meant finally I’ve had to put a couple of songs I like on my phone, and one song provided me with the just right whatever I needed to drive off campus and towards home without having to stop to cry.

Stopping in at the barn to avoid coming home to an empty house, I found the barn staff tiptoeing around because, they said, the owner’s wife had to say goodbye this morning to her daughter who just went back to school.

Captain is sad, too

This is a difficult time of the year for me for another reason, as I am now entering my fifth year of joblessness. Fall has a sting for me. Way back when I landed my first teaching gig, I was delighted to be back in the rhythm of the school year, with beginnings in late summer/early fall, and endings in late spring/early summer. When I quit my last job to get another masters degree, in the hope of starting a new career, my year was still organized around the dictates of the Thanksgiving break, winter break, and spring break of several educational institutions.

So sad

A couple of lifetimes ago, I was teaching at the University of Vermont, and I had a class of fifty-four students including five named Michael. I had learned which Michael was which and I don’t think it was the Michael who wore the ROTC uniform who raised his hand in class to say, with a declarative tone and not a querying one, “Why do we need to know this?!” ROTC Michael was not to be confused with the two Michaels in the back who seemed to be up to no good, came infrequently to class, and tried to cheat on tests. I think the question came from one of them.

I might have been going over the quadratic formula, or simplifying a gloriously messy complex fraction with fractions in the numerator and in the denominator. I taught many sections of Finite Math back then, in which case it would have been a counting problem, like, How many ways can we arrange 10 people in a group of chairs in a circle?  Had it been Business Calculus, I might have been writing out the limit definition of a derivative when he asked, because that was something the college freshmen would ask, especially those who already took calculus in high school, last year as seniors, and hadn’t done very well. 

When students ask, “Why do I need to know this?!” teachers have options. They can ignore the question. They can stop and raise their eyebrows as high as they can and say, unblinkingly, “Because it’s on the next quiz!!” like the next quiz is something concrete and specific and as unchangeable as the red, yellow and green of a traffic light. They can ask, “Don’t you want to be a rocket scientist?!” They might say Lincoln taught himself Euclidean geometry, and came up with his own proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, even though maybe it wasn’t Lincoln but it was Napoleon. Sometimes I would shout, “Because it’s awesome,” without turning around. I didn’t think any of my freshmen were on track to become rocket scientists, or math teachers, or Lincoln, or Napoleon. I didn’t make the curriculum; I was only responsible for teaching it. I wasn’t even sure why algebra students needed to be able to solve every possible quadratic equation they would ever see, because most people never need to solve any quadratic equations, ever. And if they do, there’s WolframAlpha.

At the University of Vermont, I was able to tell my Finite Math students that they needed to pass my class to get a B.A. This is the trump card in the college setting. In a high school classroom, saying, “Because you need to know this if you want to pass my class” may not have the same power.  The thing is: some of their parents, maybe even many of their parents will look you in the eye and say, “I’m really not a math person, either.” Because “I’m not a math person,” is a thing lots of people say to math teachers. 

Years later, I taught high school math at a school where we had two evening events for teacher conferences. These teacher conference nights were set up like speed dating. Parents would show up with their daughter’s schedule and follow it, making the rounds to meet her teachers. We had two nights for this, with the alphabet split so we could meet everyone. Two teachers sat in each classroom, desks pushed out of the way, a cluster of chairs for waiting in the middle, and a desk and three chairs in each corner.  The first year I had to do it I had the chairman of the department in my room; which I assumed meant they didn’t trust me not to say something stupid. It was a reasonable suspicion on their part.

Teachers were only supposed to spend 5 minutes with each family, though if no one was waiting we would spend more. T.’s parents always came, and you’d know them because they were each just as tall and gorgeous as she was. C.’s mother was relieved to know she wasn’t quite as rude and withdrawn at school as she was at home. G.'s parents just wanted to say hello. Mostly we said reassuring things, about progress and interest: “T. is a pleasure to have in my class!”

Jaclyn R.’s parents came, and her mother looked just like a 40-year-old version of her. Jaclyn was a cheerful young woman, nice to her friends, chatty in class, and funny, but not especially interested in geometry. “You’re her favorite teacher,” said her mother. Leaning in, she went on, “And she hates math. So that’s saying something.” There was an awkward silence. She shrugged. “It’s ok! I’m not a math person either,” she said. 

I told her I understood.  I said, “I am used to it. It’s like being the dentist; no one is all that happy to see me, especially not first thing in the morning.”

Dr. and Mrs. R. now had odd expressions. I turned to Dr. R., and as I blushed with recognition, I asked, “You’re a dentist, aren’t you?” They gave me a slow nod in unison.

“Well,” I said, “So you know.”

1 comment:

  1. I was a history instructor. I was allllllways having people tell me they hated history. Because of all the boring dates and facts. I would chirp "I hated history too until I took cultural history in college!" Because history is also the stories and the ideas that the dates and facts carry.

    Someday I hope I'll get to like math again. 10th grade geometry was my sweet spot. I think I'd probably like calculus if I hadn't had such an awful teacher for it in high school.