Why I quit teaching math
Schools must stop trying to sell its usefulness – it's not why anyone should learn math, Sunil Singh writes
Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
As a math teacher, there were many days I hated math more than my students did. Way more.
So I quit in 2013, happily leaving behind job security, a pension and the holy grail of teacher benefits: summers off.
Everyone thought I was crazy. I was in the early years of a divorce and had a mother and two kids to support. Almost nobody – and rightfully so, I suppose – supported my ostensibly hasty decision to abandon the education ship. There were no safety boats waiting and I was not a great swimmer. What the hell was I thinking?
In fact I was leaping off the Titanic – where actual math education is relegated to third class and was drowning along with its students.
The hardest thing to teach is mathematics. Not so much because math is hard – so is shooting three-pointers or making risotto – but because education makes it hard. Boring curriculum. Constant testing. Constant arguments over pedagogy. Lack of time. It's a Gong Show.
I found a sizable chunk of the math that I was forced to teach either a) boring; b) benign; c) banal; or d) Byzantine. The guilt of being paid to shovel this anachronistic heap of emaciated and disconnected mathematics around finally caught up with me.
I quit because I felt like a charlatan when I implicitly or explicitly told my students that what we were learning reflected the heart of mathematics or that it was the core of lifelong practicality. "When are we going to use this?" has been the No. 1 whine in math classes for a few generations. We should stop trying to sell mathematics for its usefulness. It's not why you or I should learn it.
Earlier this year, Francis Su, the outgoing president of the Mathematical Association of America, gave a speech for the ages. He referenced a prisoner named Christopher serving a long prison sentence, teaching himself mathematics. "Mathematics helps people flourish," he said. "Mathematics is for human flourishing." In a follow-up interview, Su talked about how math should involve beauty, truth, justice, love and play. Not sure about you, but my math education and Ontario teaching experience were the furthest things from these virtues. In Ontario, kids are imprisoned with criminally bland mathematics – so are the teachers.
I left teaching because my impact on math education lay beyond my classroom and my school. I felt I could contribute my passion/understanding for mathematics on a larger stage – maybe global. I was dreaming, but sometimes chasing your dreams is worth all the outside skepticism and uphill climbs. At one point, I was penniless at 50, stressed, confused and disappointed. But I wasn't unhappy. I was rescued by the light and humanity of mathematics.
Fast forward four years. I've written a book about the hidden happiness of math. I work remotely for a Canadian digital math resource company and I travel all over North America speaking about my almost gnawing passion of mathematics. I felt that I couldn't share that passion for most of my teaching career because the unchecked bureaucracy of the education system was more interested in data from standardized test scores and putting pedagogy ahead of mathematics. As such, the culture of mathematics has almost been shaded into obscurity.
So now, when I see the flood of math articles about Ontario's low math scores, I put my head in my hands and worry my eyes might just roll too far back into my head.
Every year is a contest to see who will win this year's huffing and puffing award about the province's low standardized test scores. For the past few years, arguments about old math versus new math have been running away with the trophy. Although, headlines crying Elementary Teachers Need More Math Training are often the runner-up.
As a student, I went through that "old" system. Sure, I got plenty of As and gold stars, but it took me well into my teaching career to really understand a fraction of the things I thought I knew.
Calculus? Pfff. Get rid of that thing, it belongs in university after a serious boot camp of algebra. Fractions, as with unsafe firecrackers, need to be pulled out of the hands of younger students and introduced to them in their hormonal years. Why are teachers asking students to flip and multiply fractions when you need to divide them? Anyone care to explain that to children – why fractions are doing gymnastics to arrive at the correct answer?
There are so many amazing teachers fighting the good fight. But until the real culprit – the government – gets called out for manufacturing a dog's breakfast of math education, students will continue to suffer in the classroom.
Sunil Singh lives in Toronto.