In elementary school, I excelled at math. I was the kid who could complete multiplication in my head, and I was fascinated by numbers. Math was a puzzle, and I wanted to solve it.
Then I hit middle school, and suddenly I was terrible at math. My fifth, sixth, and seventh grade math teachers were curt and annoyed by my wrong answers.
Yet, pre-algebra in eighth grade felt fairly easy. I struggled again in Algebra I but aced Algebra II.
And it was about the time I was earning high marks in Algebra II that I realized the difference: the teachers.
In honor of International Mathematics Day, better known as Pi Day, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the great teachers who make the future of STEM possible.
A Personal Example
One random day in eighth grade, my teacher was calling students to the board to complete math problems–perhaps a teenager’s greatest fear. Nevertheless, when she called me, I kept my cool, walked to the board, and said, “Okay, so the answer is obviously [long answer about triangles], so all you have to do is work back from there.”
I then proceeded to complete the problem in reverse, using the dry erase board from right to left and confidently explaining my logic. Within a minute, there were labeled diagrams, scribbled numbers, and a seesaw analogy. When I looked back at the class, eyes were glazed, and mouths were open. Pencils hung limply between fingers, never touching the paper.
My teacher, looking both dumbfounded and disoriented, stood, walked to the board, and praised me. After I sat down, she said, “Okay, forget everything she just said,” and erased my detailed diagrams. “Here’s how most of you will do it.”
Her answer seemed needlessly complicated to me, but the rest of the class quickly scribbled it in their notebooks, nodding the entire time. She glanced at me several times, as did a few of the students, and I knew she and I were sharing a thought: I completed math problems differently. That revelation made my life easier, even when I would struggle later. Her kindness and flexibility during that year made math fun, and I liked working hard to make her proud.
A decade later during an English lesson, my exasperated student snidely asked me to answer a ridiculous division question, and I did. She punched it into her calculator, then stared at me with the same look as those eighth graders. She asked me how I figured it out, but I couldn’t tell her. In the random moments when my brain works that way, I am incapable of explaining it to someone else.
That is one of the many reasons I am not a math teacher.
They Teach the Practicality of Math
Very early into Algebra II, my teacher admitted that most students would not use algebra in their everyday lives. “But some of you will,” he said. “And most of you will need it for college. And all of you need it to graduate high school. So, I don’t ever want to hear that you won’t need algebra. You need it now.” I never heard anyone use that excuse for the rest of the year.
Although he still occasionally taught the “trains leaving” cliché or the applicability to roller coasters (which was a popular word problem for some reason), he tried to teach the practical applications, too. He knew plenty of his students likely had future careers as carpenters, mechanics, and welders, who would need the concepts he taught. Additionally, at least three classmates became professors of engineering and applied sciences.
The best math teachers help students understand how the lessons could apply to real life. If you want your child (or yourself) to better grasp the principles of mathematics, look for teachers who relate them to the real world.
They’re Flexible, Too
The Common Core State Standards Initiative was created in 2010 to standardize learning in the United States. It applies to all grades, and I have never met a teacher who liked it. Many legislators like the idea, and some administrators agree. Nevertheless, teachers often hate the rigidity and the “teach to the test” approach in which they are forced to instruct.
Although some schools have relaxed, one of the biggest complaints of parents is that students are forced to use a specific method to find the correct answer. If you found the right answer, but you didn’t use the correct steps, you still missed the question. Stories emerged of neurodivergent students crying during homework, as they were unable to replicate the exact method, despite knowing the answer.
The best math teachers can give endless examples, explain a problem from multiple angles, and teach the “why” as well as the “how”. The teachers who had to look at the textbook for examples became easily exasperated with me (and other students); conversely, the teachers who could create new examples without a guide were patient with us.
The best math teachers allow flexibility in the process. Whether the student performs the exact steps is irrelevant; the most important lesson is that they develop a method that helps them understand the concepts and replicate them in the future. Finding a teacher who accepts different methods of proof will make learning mathematics easier and more enjoyable.
And They Make Math Fun
This may be the most difficult task for any teacher, but especially math teachers. How do you take a subject that is often considered rigid and boring and make it fun? How do you help the creative students who struggle with standardized processes or the logical students who struggle with variables? And how do you teach both of those groups simultaneously?
Although the standard may still be rote learning with some complex thinking in the later grades, great teachers find a way to make math class interesting. I am unsure if I have ever been as interested in math as I was in third grade when the class worked collectively to learn multiplication tables in an effort to win an ice cream party. Also, my sixth-grade teacher taught basic geometry by turning her students into city planners who designed parks on graph paper. From building with pattern blocks to completing complex art projects, I have watched students learn significantly more math than would have been possible by reading the textbook.
Great Math Teachers Teach on MyCoolClass
Whether your child is struggling with basic fundamentals, or you are studying for your final in macroeconomics, MyCoolClass has teachers who can help. These teachers often have a mix of teaching and real-world experience. Many of them have taught for several years in primary or secondary classrooms. Some of them are retired professors, and others are working mathematicians and scientists who enjoy teaching as a hobby.
Often, these self-employed online teachers have the qualities I described. They are able to apply their subject to real situations, provide a flexible curriculum, and make learning enjoyable. Feel free to browse the listings, contact the teachers directly, or even schedule a demo lesson to help you choose the right teacher for you.
A Quick Thank You to the Best Math Teachers
Thank you to all the great mathematics educators teaching future scientists, engineers, accountants, and all the jobs that require a solid math foundation. Your work is appreciated, especially by those of us incapable of teaching the concepts.
Happy Pi Day!