Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I Love Teaching Math; Maybe You Will Too

By Patrick Honner

Patrick Honner, assembling a dodecahedral sculpture.
Mathematics is a beautiful subject, full of compelling intellectual challenges and deep connections to virtually every aspect of life. And students of mathematics are rewarded with a wealth of career opportunities spanning science, engineering, technology, and the humanities. Coveted jobs in fields like statistics, computer science, and finance attract the mathematically minded, and for good reasons.

But one field doesn’t attract as many math students as it should: teaching. There are reasons for this, too— teaching doesn’t offer the pay, status, and opportunity that other mathematical jobs do. As a career, math teacher doesn’t seem like an optimal solution.

Yet, it should. Because being a math teacher offers its own great rewards. Of course, I’m biased. I’ve been teaching high school math for nearly 15 years, and I love it.

But I didn’t start out wanting to be a teacher. After college I went to graduate school, lived abroad, and worked for a variety of tech companies. I enjoyed the options that studying math had given me, but I didn’t find my place right away. Becoming a teacher was a natural decision for me. I loved math and enjoyed teaching—as a tutor, as a teaching assistant in graduate school, and as an English teacher abroad. But it took a few years to realize what a great job it was.

First, being a math teacher is a wonderful mathematical challenge. Each student sees math from a unique perspective, which is often very different from my own. Finding ways to make our mathematics meet requires me to understand ideas in multiple ways, which is one of the most powerful and exciting aspects of mathematics. And it’s something I get to do, and learn from, every day as a teacher.

Teaching math also requires more creativity than I imagined. The need for new ways to introduce ideas, connect concepts, and engage students inspires me to innovate to create compelling problems, tasks, and projects at the right level of complexity.

And teaching has inspired me to be more creative with mathematics. I photograph the math around me, write about my mathematical experiences, and build using mathematical tools. It is personally fulfilling, but it also inspires my students, who in turn inspire me with their geometric photography, algorithmic art, 3D sculptures, and mathematical writing.

Through teaching, I have grown as a mathematician. I have to develop multiple conceptions of mathematical ideas, distill complex systems and procedures to their essence, and identify and highlight the fundamental principles that unite disparate, disconnected curricula. I have a much deeper understanding of mathematics because of all this.

And of course, the work is profoundly meaningful. As a teacher, I never wonder if what I do makes a difference. Every day I help students move forward in their lives—through understanding mathematics, the world, and themselves. I know what I do has an impact. I feel it every day: when students share their own mathematical experiences with me, when graduates tell me they want to study math in college, and when former students tell me about how they are applying math in their careers.

Teaching can be a great job. But it’s not an easy job. Under the best circumstances, teaching taxes your intellect, tests your emotional resolve, and humbles you. And few teachers work under the best circumstances. It’s not for everyone. But it is a job where, after 15 years, you can feel as energized and passionate as when you started, where you know you can continue to grow and evolve, and where you know you make a difference.

The next time you think about math teaching, think about what a great job it can be. Maybe it’s not the right job for you right now, but you never know. Maybe, like me, you might find your life’s optimal solution.

Patrick Honner teaches at Brooklyn Technical High School. He’s a three-time Math for America Master Teacher and a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. He blogs at MrHonner.com and is @MrHonner on Twitter.