I spent many a night at the kitchen table in grades 7 through 9 with tears streaming down my face, hating the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Persians and anyone else who had helped develop and expand that detestable field of mathematics known as algebra. I just didn’t get it. Those uninviting 600 page text books with 50-problem homework sets, just a jumble of meaningless letters on the page, the answer key in the back pages taunting me because I had to show all my work to get any credit. The brainiacs working through the problems on the chalkboard in front of the class in mere seconds and then returning to their seats leaving me standing there alone, backside exposed to my classmates, chalk poised and hoping that one of my friends in the front row would whisper to me what to write so I could return to my seat before the teacher talked me through the problem while everyone else tapped their feet and doodled impatiently. Algebra was the worst.
Fortunately for me, I was in accelerated math in grade 8, which clearly I shouldn’t have been, but since I was a straight A student in all other subjects, it was just assumed that I belonged there. Being in accelerated math meant that after grade 9, I could quit math altogether because New York State standards only required two years of high school math. And only three of science, yet four of physical education, oddly enough. So after grade 9, you bet I quit! I also successfully avoid the two-semester requirement of university math by taking a Critical Thinking class (a mix of logic and probability, run by the Philosophy department) and a Basic Stats & Computing class to fulfill that requirement. Somehow those counted as acceptable substitutes and I got an A- in each.
Then math was out of my life entirely for the next six years until I started working for the Princeton Review. I started teaching there just after they had switched over from having a separate verbal and quantitative teacher for each class to requiring all teachers to teach both subjects. Bad news for me. Somehow I made it through three full weekends of training without anyone realizing what a math-tard I was, mostly because my math training was about how to turn algebra questions into simple arithmetic to beat the test, and they accepted me as a teacher.
Whenever I do something, I want to do it well. I had five years of teaching under my belt at that point so I wasn’t worried about engaging a class of teenagers who would rather be shoveling the five foot drifts of snow that Buffalo is so famous for than sitting in an SAT prep class. But I knew math was my weakness, so I practiced the questions over and over and over and wrote copious notes in my manual. Nonetheless, in my very first class I completed froze on explaining a question – just one out of dozens, mind you, in a three-hour long class – and one of the students had to explain it to the class for me. And that little shit went home and told his mother that he was smarter than the teacher and the mother called the Princeton Review and the executive director called me and my eventual seven-year career with the Princeton Review almost never happened.
Anyone who has taught anything knows that you make mistakes in front of the class all the time, even on problems you have taught 25 times successfully already and could teach in your sleep. That’s because when you teach, your mind is doing five other things besides just trying to solve a math problem. You’re thinking ahead to what you want to do next, thinking of questions to ask the students to assess their understanding, thinking about how annoyed you are that none of them did their homework. Because of that, I was never embarrassed about making mistakes. I had various techniques for playing it off, making it look intentional, or just telling my (adult) students that I was hungover and so – oops. Silly me. I’m not saying that’s what happened in this case (I was really just clueless) but I think my executive director understood too that teachers make mistakes and that maybe the student and parents were overreacting.
So my seven-year career did happen and I was incredibly successful. I trained to teach multiple other tests, became a premier tutor (I was really bringing in the cash then!), worked with the content development team, and…started loving math. Test prep math, and the way it’s taught, is nothing like high school math. Thank god, because those high school kids’ math skills never stopped terrifying me. They knew math that hadn’t been invented when I was in high school. But when you do math on a standardized test, your goal is to do it as efficiently as possible and take all the short cuts you can. You don’t get any credit for showing your work, so it’s often better not to do any. What you want to do is look at the numbers in the questions and the numbers in the answers and try to determine which just can’t possibly be correct. You also want to look for patterns and relationships and think in general terms about what happens when you multiply two types of numbers together, but you don’t always have to actually do the calculations. If you’ve ever prepped for the GMAT Data Sufficiency questions, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
So you may be thinking that I’m not really describing math here at all, but you’re wrong. To see the patterns and relationship among numbers, you have to understand the principles of math, and the characteristics of numbers and mathematical operations. You also have to use mathematical logical. That’s the big difference. In high school, you just have to solve, solve, solve. You watch an example and then you’re expected to do dozens of problems just like the example and don’t ask why. But knowing why is what drives passion. I started enjoying teaching the quantitative portions of the test more than the verbal sections because math has a why to teach to students. Grammar doesn’t. I loved watching math concepts click in the low-scoring students’ minds.
I realize none of this is the same as loving PhD-level mathematics, but I think that had I had a tiger mom and a learning environment that wasn’t a 28 student classroom filled with friends I just wanted to goof off with, I might have learned to love math from a much earlier age.
Curious about what everyone else is writing for the A to Z Blog Challenge? Me too! I’m featuring three blogs from my fellow contributors each day. Here are today’s entertaining, lyrical, beautiful, unique, informative, or just plain random discoveries: