Relatively speaking, high school wasn’t too long ago, but sufficiently long enough for me to reflect on how this education affected me. After I had accrued a healthy amount of college tier mathematics, I see the big difference between how math is taught in college, and how to teach mathematics in secondary school. Before I delve deeper into this, there are some considerations that must be understood in order to see the difference between learning in college and learning in high school.The first and biggest piece of the puzzle in unsurprisingly maturity. For the most part (there are exceptions) once a student reaches college level learning, they are more or less prepared for it. If you are a United States college student with a smidgeon of fiscal awareness, you already know that you are paying a king’s ransom for the courses you are taking, and are likely using government aid to do it. It’s amazing how much pressure to succeed money puts on a student. I know it did for me, and I did not take it for granted. I worked hard because I knew if I threw caution to the wind or otherwise failed the courses I was taking that I would have to pay this money again. That’s not exactly what I had in mind, so I took advantage of any resources I could and knocked out the courses as best I could.
In secondary school, this financial pressure is in almost all cases non existent. However, the pressure lies in constructing a future for oneself. Again, we are faced with maturity. How many high school students truly recognize the importance of the four years they spend in secondary school? You could answer this question by asking yourself this; Do you ever wish you could go back to your high school years and study harder? Do you know anyone who has said if they had it to do again, that they would put a higher priority to their studies? It is a double edged sword, because high school is really not simply meant for studies, but also as a breeding ground for healthy social interaction. People look back to high school and don’t remember taking their courses, or how well they learned, they look back at all the good times they had with their friends (or for some how hard it was for them socially).
Maturation – not only mathematically – plays a big role in the formative years that is high school. This insight might seem bleak to some educators because conveying enthusiasm for academics is not an easy thing to do. It’s an uphill battle, and there is much to accomplish in very little time. What can be done?
I want to limit the scope of this selection to dealing with how to garner interest, and effectively convey mathematical ideas to students who are very much busy with growing in other ways. There is a lot on controversy nowadays because of the “Common Core” debate that has sprouted up recently. Not only this, but the long standing debate of the effectiveness of teaching in relation to standardized tests heats up an already boiling over issue. I have some very radical opinions of this myself. I think in a phrase, it stands to obvious reason that high school – for both teachers and students – is not easy.
In any case, here is my two cents on how to teach mathematics in secondary school:
Temper Your Teacher Side With a “Cool” Side. This sounds a bit silly I imagine, but I found based on observation that the type of teachers that were the most effective in teaching were the ones who were happy to be at their job and were able to integrate their academic duties as a teacher with their sociability and likeability as a person. Make jokes! Be understanding, and don’t be overbearing in your professionalism. I had one teacher who was named Mr. Dick. That was actually his last name, but his likeability factor was off the scale. Students who have had him for more than one class or had gotten to know him would reverently refer to him as “The Dickman”. It was a strange irony, but it suitably demonstrates the point. He often integrated his personal interests in the material taught through anecdotes which were particularly useful. Sometimes the anecdotes had nothing to do with the material at all; he was just being a sociable kind of guy.
Don’t “Over-Temper” Your Teacher Side With a “Cool” Side. This little tidbit can do a disservice to your students in the very least, and get you in trouble at most. Don’t be too lenient, but be understanding. Don’t get too bogged down in long explanations about a concept, but don’t do away with them either. I think this is a rather hard part of math teaching, and why I chose not to go down that path. I really like to talk to the people I teach and get to know them, because it is easier to be a great teacher if you are not intimidating. But it’s hard to be a friendly, sociable person on one hand and be teacher or disciplinarian in the other.
Be Dynamic and Enthusiastic About What You Teach. You teach mathematics! You are teaching what Carl Friedrich Gauss called “the Queen of the Sciences” and what you dedicated many years of your life to understanding! Today’s lesson isn’t some boring useless drivel that you impose upon your students, and never treat it that way. I know through my own experiences that sometimes things can get tedious, and sometimes we don’t feel our best. But look deep inside you and pull out the best teacher you can on those days. Your students deserve it.
Don’t Be Unhappy if You See Disinterest. This is a big one for me, because I would love it if everyone was interested in math. However, the hard and fast truth is that people are interested in many things, and in reality there are very few people who choose mathematics as a career in some form or another. There are even fewer who develop more than a passing interest! It would seem that people tend to go one way or another: either you love it you you hate it. It’s the “cost of doing business” as it were, but at least foster as much interest as you can. People might be surprised someday when there’s a mathematical problem in their way and they remember what you taught.
Teaching mathematics in secondary school is obviously a gargantuan endeavor, and I respect the teachers who take it upon themselves to do it. I will stick with my tutoring, but I hope that any fledgling secondary school math teachers who read this take away something that helps them put their best foot forward.
For some quality information on how to teach mathematics to secondary school students from experienced teachers, get a copy of The Math Teacher’s Toolbox: How to Teach Math to Teenagers and Survive. A highly recommended read for both new and experienced teachers.