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Math Geek Mom: Learning to Teach
January 22, 2009 - 11:29pm

It is ironic that the two jobs by which I define myself; mother and teacher, are the two jobs that I began without any real training. Like many mothers, I am still looking for the “owner’s manual” in how to raise a child, and every time I think I have things figured out, everything changes and the child starts walking and climbing and more.

The same it true for teaching. An article in Inside Higher Education on January 5th, reported on a presentation given at the American Economic Association Meetings in this year regarding the teaching of economics. William Walstad (of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln) and William Becker (of Indiana Univeristy at Bloomington), two of the country’s current leading economics educators, pointed out that the path to becoming an economics professor usually does not include training as a teacher. They suggested that this situation be changed, and that graduate students in economics be offered the opportunity to take actual classes in how to teach economics. This got me reflecting on how I learned to teach, since I also did not have any formal classes in teaching in general, or teaching economics or math, in particular. The best answer I can come up with is that I had amazing teachers along the way, and I learned to teach by being taught well.

I was fortunate to have a group of professors who were very focused on students, who would take time to explain topics that were giving us difficulty, and who had an almost open-door policy towards students and our questions. It was only years later that I realized that these same teachers were probably working frantically to publish, so as not to perish, at the same time. However, to the student I was at the time, I had no sense that they were concerned with anything other than my attainment of knowledge. After all (being a teenager for most of that time), that was what we cared about, so it must be what they were concerned with, too.

When it came time to teach, I didn’t get a lot of formal training, but I do remember some helpful, almost throw-away hints that have stayed with me through the years. I recall one professor in graduate school saying “never teach a course for the first time”. While this is, of course, impossible, I took his thoughts to heart and wrote out notes for many of my new classes before I stepped foot in the classroom. Another told us to “never do algebra in public”. I repeat this often to my classes, to explain why I want time to work through difficult new problems before attempting to answer them in front of a class. Indeed, it has become quite a phrase in our department, as my major students often remind me “now remember, don’t do algebra in public.” I don’t know if a teacher (or was it a fellow graduate student?) told me about the “large dot theorem”, which is employed whenever two lines are supposed to intersect at a given point, but, when drawn on a board, just don’t seem to do that easily- a large dot makes them appear to cross at the correct point. But the best advice I received about teaching, and graduate school in general, came from the director of graduate studies at the time. He said “bigger fools than I have done this.” Yes they have, and some have succeeded and others have not. I wanted to be a member of the group that succeeded.

Wallstad and Becker allude to the fact that the current system leads graduate students (and the professors they become) to focus on lecturing rather than on other types of teaching that might help some students learn more effectively. I was lucky enough to take a seminar in teaching economics from professor Walstad and some of his colleagues, and was able to learn some of these alternatives to lecturing. They include using writing in the curriculum as a way to help students focus and digest material and including more of a focus on discussion. However, by the time I attended that seminar, I was several years into my teaching career. I could have used those hints much earlier, and support requiring a similar course for all graduate students. But then, I realize that I I don’t have the job of fitting one into an overcrowded curriculum. I do, however, wonder, will the “large dot theorem” will be part of such training?


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