This is first of a series of blog entries on what I learned along the way.
I graduated from college at the height of the Vietnam War. I grew up in a small New England city where there was a great teacher shortage (because they paid so little), and the chairman of my local draft board was the principal of an elementary school in the city. He convinced the draft board to make an open offer — anyone who would come back to teach in the city schools would be given an occupational deferment from the draft. It sounded good to me.
When I was a student in the city’s schools, I was a math star. I aced every math test and got perfect scores on the math SAT and achievement tests. While my undergraduate major had been in politics, I was assigned to teach 7th grade math and was given a provisional certification (with the requirement that I take at least two courses a year toward earning my full certification).
Because I was the newest teacher in the school’s math department, I was given two “average” classes and three “below average” groups to teach. It was an eye-opener. While I had always picked up on math concepts very quickly, these students did not have my math aptitude. When I took math classes, I only had to be taught a topic once; for these students, once was not enough.
There were a few lessons I learned from this experience. First, I had to learn patience – my students were not going to learn math as quickly or as easily as I had. Second, I had to learn to teach the same topic in several different ways — this was an education for me on learning styles. Some students learned by rote, others learned more easily by having solid objects in their hands. Some liked mnemonics to help them remember. I was fortunate in that my own math education in the city’s high school had been very good, with some excellent teachers who were able to mentor me on various teaching methods … which brings me another, related story.
The high school that I attended had very good math teachers. The chairperson of the math department was an outstanding teacher, probably 20 years older than myself, and she was very pleased to learn that I was back in town teaching math. She was a real role model for me in my new teaching position.
By chance, both she and I had signed up for an “Introduction to Computer Programming: course at a nearby college. The instructor at the college was a young graduate student who was a very talented programmer, and he made the assumption that everyone in the class would pick up on what he was teaching as quickly as he had in his education. While I had never seen a computer at that time, it turned out that I had a great aptitude for programming. Unfortunately, my old teacher, my role model, did not have this talent, and the instructor was very hard on her. It got to a point after a few weeks where I could no longer stand how he was treating her, and I took him aside during a break in the class and read him the riot act.
The clear lesson here was that as a teacher, you owe respect to your students, just as you expect them to respect you. Not having a great aptitude for a particular subject does not make you a bad person, and just as my students for 7th-grade math were not as mathematically gifted as I had been, this was not a reason to think less of them as people or to harass them because they were having difficulty with the topic.