Luring Math Professionals Into the Classroom

For today's paper I wrote a story about Steve Ingrassia, a former senior executive in the information technology sector who left his six-figure job to become a math teacher at Fairfax High School.

He explained his reasoning for switching jobs:

"I thought I could make a more personal difference with kids if I became a teacher," said the 52-year-old Herndon resident, who is fond of wearing to school a sports shirt embossed with the symbol for pi.

"I think kids need some role models," he said. "They need to know someone who can answer authoritatively when they ask, 'When will I ever need to use algebra?' "

Many say that career changers could ease the teacher shortage in math; that their real-world experience could go a long way to helping kids imagine themselves in math-related careers later on. Programs like The New Teacher Project are geared toward helping working professionals transition into high-needs schools.

Ingrassia had the financial security to take a lower paying job. A lot of people don't.

What do you think are some promising ways of getting more working mathematicians to try teaching?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  February 26, 2009; 11:22 AM ET
Previous: Who is a Successful Honors Math Student? | Next: Story of a Math Formula

Comments



I was just thinking about this today. We need at least two tutors in each math class at high-needs schools, so that students can get more personalized math instruction. Teachers really need the help. So what we need is a tutor corp.

Posted by: rtva | February 27, 2009 12:12 AM | Report abuse

I wish working mathematicians could easily become teachers but that's not the case. They need some training in education first.
I spend a lot of time around math tutors. I see very good tutors who explain math concepts well, understanding the student and the material. I see tutors who don't.
Luckily, many of the students asking for help simply want a tutor to work through the problem so they can see how it is done.
Some students didn't get the explanation that the instructor tried to fit into 50 minutes of class time devoted to several concepts; those students really need to be 'taught' and not just shown.
A good teacher or tutor tries to find the best and right way to explain something and they also need to sense when the student really 'gets it'. That's not easy.
Yesterday, I listened for an hour while a tutor (a mathematician) explained a concept over and over to a student who wasn't getting it. Just repeating the explanation, which would have been fine for someone with a better background in the subject. The concept was really difficult for the student.
The student did say that he was getting 'something' out of the explanation - and it was certainly more than he got in the classroom lecture - but he still didn't get it.
What I myself do first, before ever asking a tutor, is try to look at several (3 or more) math textbooks and read about the subject. That's a beginning. Each textbook author - and there are very good ones, all mathematicians and all teachers, usually at the college level - has something to offer in the way he explains something. The background you need is usually in the book somewhere. If not, the introduction will point you to what you need.
Textbooks take time to scan or study. Tutors are quicker. You don't need tutors if the instructor taught effectively in class, which is not easy, everyone knows that.
Good teachers are invaluable. They are not the same as good mathematicians. But you can require good teachers to learn to become better mathematicans if they are going to teach math. It's entirely reasonable.

Posted by: KathyWi | February 27, 2009 9:18 AM | Report abuse

I think there are a couple of issues that keep mathematicians out of the classroom.

The first is getting administrators to value the career experience that someone brings to the classroom. Sadly, most school systems and administrators only value time spent in the classroom. Consequently, they tend to be dismissive of ideas from people who have career switched and that is frustrating. I had an administrator actually tell me that professional experience had no value in the classroom.

People will argue that the above is not true but consider this. If someone with a math degree career switches after twenty years in business, they are started at step 0 of the salary scale. Just like any kid out of college. We all know that you don't make money as a teacher. Those of us who have career switched took a huge hit in pay. It would be nice for school systems to recognize the value of professional experience by putting people on the salary scale where their previous career is factored in.

Think about this. If Albert Einstein came along today and career switched he would start off at step 0. Its not about the money but about the recognition and respect.

Posted by: ggartner | February 27, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, too many people take the simplistic approach to teaching..."anybody can do this."

That is NOT TRUE.

Not just anybody can spend hours upon hours with students who are apathetic, who get in the way of other students' learning, disrespect themselves, their peers, their families, and their instructors.

Not just anybody can endure the humiliation of knowing a strategy works only to be told by some bureaucrat that because it is NOT sanctioned, it cannot be utilized. Not just anybody can work LONG hours for short pay and get excited because a breakthrough was made today, only to be lost tomorrow...and come back to it again and again, everyday.

Teaching is a calling. As some of my colleagues say- teaching is a mission. It's missionary work.

We believe what we are doing will make a difference. We don't do it for the money. Believe me, we DON'T do it for the money. With that said, if you are going to "switch careers" because you think you have something to offer and you have years of experience, be willing to accept that in this country: the educators; who spend more time with the children than their own parents, are treated as though they are not professionals, more as "glorified babysitters."

More people WILL come to mission of education, when it has the same professional respect as baseball, basketball, football, medicine, and law.

I do not begrudge these career switchers, but i want them to know how good they really have it before they decide to leave the frying pan and leap head first into the fire.

Until education is VALUED in this country, good educators will be scarce and the perceived "bad" educator will be plentiful.

Posted by: WTCouncil | February 27, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I would enjoy teaching math at the high school level, were I assured of a reasonably respectful group of students. Unfortunately, the certification process (or a degree in education) is less helpful in making good teachers than in boring us all with politically correct jargon. I just haven't got time for that nonsense.

Posted by: DDunn1 | February 28, 2009 6:33 AM | Report abuse

I've thought about getting into education in a few years. I think I'd be pretty good at conveying information. But it's all the non-teaching parts of being a "teacher" that scare me. Discipline, parents, administrators, the hyper-political correctness... I think those sorts of things drive away people who would otherwise consider it.

By the way, Michael, you owe us a Friday quiz! :-)

Posted by: tomsing | March 2, 2009 8:02 AM | Report abuse

Some notes on what has already been said:
a) One of the problems in recruiting teachers is the "missionary" attitude in education. Until we get past the "teachers are martyrs" attitude, which in my experience (as a teacher), is pretty untrue, you won't be able to get any teachers.

b) Education degrees are worthless. The idea in education is that someone who has a say BS in mathematics isn't qualified to be a teacher, but someone with a BS in education is is absurd. It is certainly true that not everyone has what it takes to be a teacher, but having an education degree doesn't mean you have what it takes either.

Putting obstacles between intellegent people who want to teach and teaching is just silly.

Posted by: someguy100 | March 2, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

ggartner wrote:

"The first is getting administrators to value the career experience that someone brings to the classroom. Sadly, most school systems and administrators only value time spent in the classroom. Consequently, they tend to be dismissive of ideas from people who have career switched and that is frustrating. I had an administrator actually tell me that professional experience had no value in the classroom."

I agree whole-heartedly. Before one makes the career switch, these are the things you hear:

1) You'll be valued for your experience and accumulated wisdom. School districts are just dying to hire people like you.

2) And, if you're male, you'll be greatly valued for being a positive male role model for all the teenage boys.

But...

After you devote YEARS of time and BIG BUCKS (my education "training" cost nearly 20K) to absolutely worthless education classes you find, in interview after interview, that no one gives a damn about your experience or even your content knowledge. In reality the vast majority of administrators out there are far more concerned whether you can keep HS students occupied with arts-and-crafts projects than they are interested whether or not you know any math or science, or whatever.

The situation doesn't change much even after you get a job. Even though my training is in engineering my superiors treat me as though I have no wisdom whatsoever in counseling kids who intend to major in engineering. How's that for lack of respect.

And...I now barely make enough to pay my own bills and take care of my own children.

You want to attract more professionals to teaching? Stop looking for martyrs.

This brings me to the following comment by WTCouncil:

"Teaching is a calling. As some of my colleagues say- teaching is a mission. It's missionary work"

Teaching isn't "missionary work" any more than any other profession. I don't want my kid's teacher to be a missionary any more than I want his pediatrician to be a missionary. This is precisely why you get people whose idealism outpaces their competence.

The whole "calling" mentality is an artifact of ed school BS.

BTW, the word "Luring" in the subject of this article is very apt.

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 3, 2009 8:24 AM | Report abuse

From grade school through high school, I believe teaching IS a calling. I say that because college teaching is not - in college, it is up to the student to 'get it' or independently seek help from a tutor, for example.
Before college, the teacher is urged to reach everyone, teach to every single student so that they 'get it' - that's the missionary aspect, like making sure there is NO poverty in the world and NO ONE is homeless.
In an urban high school near my town, there's a high school teacher who comes to class and reads the newspaper while he tells his students to 'read chapter 4 of your textbook'. This is regarded as scandalous, by students and parents - because this is high school - but he gets away with it.
By the time a student is in college, despite the fact that he or his parents are paying tuition, professors can and do encourage their students to teach themselves. If you are not 'getting it', drop the class and find another.
Now students fill out a questionnaire at the end of a course to evaluate the professor. It's an anonymous procedure. If most of the class is failing the class and they all give the professor bad marks, there is at least some indication why. This is new and it's valuable. Since once a professor has tenure, it's almost impossible to fire the guy EVER, the feedback is important.
If you don't want the missionary aspect of teaching, college is the place for you!

Posted by: KathyWi | March 3, 2009 9:18 AM | Report abuse

I have a PhD in computer science, 8 years of college teaching experience, and 10 years of experience in industry. Recently I looked into the possibity of switching to K-12 teaching (after discovering that teachers in Westchester County make more after 10 years than software engineers do!). But I found several obstacles. First, I have been told that there is strong bias in the school districts to hiring older people with experience because we scare the administrators a little. Secondly,I was told that I can't get hired here until I have "paid my dues" by teaching in New York City - but I have small kids myself and really don't want to have a long commute. Thirdly, I honestly think the biggest need for math teachers is at the elementary level - that is where the damage is being done by teachers who are petrified of math. But the school districts evidently don't see the need. I would happily teach as an elementary school generalist, but there is no way an older, experienced person is going to get hired at that level - they want 20-somethings fresh out of school.

Posted by: bkmny | March 3, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

I also strongly disagree that college teachers don't work with their students. That may be true for research stars at large research universities, but it isn't true at the small college level. I spent many years teaching at that level. I spent a LOT of time with students. We had to reach all levels of students since this was a state college. We had LD students with accomodations, and students with emotional crises. We had to deal with older working students with endless childcare crises. I liked teaching at that level, and the students liked me (we had those anonymous ratings even back then, and I always did well). However, the hours required really burned me out. I was working 60+ hours every week, so I could reach all those students.

Posted by: bkmny | March 3, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

"From grade school through high school, I believe teaching IS a calling. I say that because college teaching is not"

We can apply this logic to any profession. Consider this:

I believe that being a critical care physician is a calling while being a cardiologist is not. A cardiologist has patients that can drive themselves to an appointment while a critical care physician has patients that need round-the-clock care.

I believe that being a neonatologist is a calling while being a pediatrician is not. A pediatrician has patients that can bounce off the walls prior an appointment while a neonatologist has patients that need round-the-clock care.

Etc, etc, etc.

Relative helplessness does not a calling make

Calling is a religious term and shouldn't be applied to secular professions.

BTW, for those math professionals considering a career switch: This is another aspect of becoming a teacher you'll likely find distasteful. I remember sitting in 3-hour education classes "discussing" ("professing the faith" is a more accurate term) the idea that teaching is a calling and not a profession. I doubt that anyone actually believed what they were saying but "professing the faith" seems to be a big thing in education circles.

"town, there's a high school teacher who comes to class and reads the newspaper while he tells his students to 'read chapter 4 of your textbook'. This is regarded as scandalous, by students and parents - because this is high school - but he gets away with it."

It would likewise be considered scandalous in colleges as well.

"This is new and it's valuable. Since once a professor has tenure, it's almost impossible to fire the guy EVER, the feedback is important."

If you pay attention to the papers you'll see many letters from college professors describing the downhill slide in college students over the past two decades. These feedback forms are part of the problem. College students, in general, will give the highest marks to professors who give the highest grades while teaching them nothing. This is where "calling" has gotten us.

If all these grand ideas that are professed in education circles are really such grand ideas, why are we always griping about poor quality in our schools?

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 3, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

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