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Why Math Majors Often Make the Worst Math Teachers

by Dr. Robert Glover on Mar 21st, 2013.     7 comments

math-classIn my experience, people who are naturally good at something make the worst teachers of it.

Case in point, math teachers.

Through junior high and high school, I was terrible at math. I was lucky to scrape by with Cs. I can still remember standing at the blackboard trying to work a problem. My brain would freeze and I'd have no clue how to get from point A to point B. Geometry and Advanced Algebra were my idea of hell. I only took them because they were college-entrance requirements.

Part of the problem was that I didn't like math, so I didn't pay attention. Another was that I rarely did my homework. But mainly, I just didn't understand that every math problem manifested a concept or principle. So not only did I not understand math concepts and principles - I didn't even know they existed. I assumed that every problem was a brand new adventure, unique unto itself.

Do you know why I didn't get that all math was principles and concepts? Because it didn't come naturally to me and no one ever taught me (or if they did, I wasn't paying attention). Why didn't any of my math teachers ever make sure I understood this?

Here's why: odds were either they didn't understand it themselves (that does happen in schools; case in point, football coaches who teach math), or they were math majors for whom math had always come easy. So they taught it how they had learned, assuming everyone learned it like they had.

In general, people who are naturally good at something don't teach it well. They assume that everyone picks up the subject or skill just as easily as they did. When some don't, such teachers don't know how to help students over the hump, because they never struggled with it themselves.

By the time I got to college, I had figured out that everything was based on principles and concepts (especially math). When I had to take math my freshman year, I decided that I would study my math book until I completely understood every principle behind every problem. I focused. I stuck with it until I "got it."

And I did get it. In class, when the teacher would give confusing answers to another student's questions, I would lean over and whisper, "Ignore him. I'll show you later how it works."

That entire semester, I only missed a grand total of two questions on all the exams. I made an A+. Not only did I "get it," but I could help others get it quickly by teaching them the concepts and principles that I had struggled to learn.

I could say the same thing about learning a language, learning to salsa, and learning to date. None of these comes easy to me. I've had to struggle with every one of them.

If you had asked me ten years ago if I would ever teach men how to date, I would have said, "No way in hell." I sucked at dating. I had never done it well. I had no clue.

How did I become a dating coach? I went out, learned the concepts and principles, started applying them, got good at it, and had success.

What are my credentials for teaching men to date? I sucked at it, and I got good at it. That's it.

The best teachers are those who have struggled to learn what they are now teaching. They understand what it feels like to not "get it," to feel anxious, to feel overwhelmed, to feel awkward, to feel stupid.

The best teachers also know how it feels to persevere until it finally sinks in and the light goes on. They know how it feels to begin to develop a skill set, to feel confident, to see results.

Everything I teach is something I've struggled to learn. I think that is mainly why guys like working with me. I've bumbled my way through relationships, through dating, through recovering from being a Nice Guy. I teach what I've learned.
Want to learn a new concept, subject or skill? Find a teacher who sucked at it and then figured it out.



Topics: Personal Growth


Matt says ...
Interesting article, Robert.

I've always been horrible at math. In high school I once finished a quarter with an F in algebra and A's in everything else. In grad school, I received a C in my stats class. In grad school, a C is essentially an F. (Actually, my work in the class was sub-C. The professor knew I was a theory major, so I think he gave me the C knowing I'd never have to look at the stuff again). However, I offset that C with A's in my political theory classes. The following semester, I earned a 4.0 because the only courses I had to take were in my major.

Being a theory major, I wasn't required to take the advanced stats class everyone else had to take. If I had to take that class, I probably would have flunked out of grad school.

I never understood math concepts. Math was always just a jumble of random numbers to me. I guess the concepts were never really taught the right way--if at all.

Hope you're doing well.
Brian C. says ...
Wow! That was a great article.

I enjoyed it all, especially these two paragraphs:

What are my credentials for teaching men to date? I sucked at it, and
I got good at it. That's it.

The best teachers are those who have struggled to learn what they are
now teaching. They understand what it feels like to not "get it," to
feel anxious, to feel overwhelmed, to feel awkward, to feel stupid.

I totally agree with you. I can understand why men like working with
you. I have read your book at least three times. I also refer to it
every now and again (including today). Thus, I feel like I've read it
a dozen times. What jumps out at me each time I read it though is how
well you communicate. Your language is not convoluted. It is clear,
concise, and to the point. It is easy to understand.

Kevin says ...
FYI, there's a big typo in the title of the article:

Why Math Majors Often Make the Worst *MATCH* Teachers
Dr. Glover says ...
Thanks, I'm a terrible speller too!
Mark says ...
Although it is possible for those who struggled to learn a subject to become good teachers of that subject, it isn't likely. Most people who struggle learning something simply don't learn it. And although remembering one's learning struggles can help on occasion in explaining a subject, obsession or preoccupation with those struggles is likely to get in the way of teaching.

The best teachers of mathematics are those who speak clearly and elegantly. Although they might struggle mightily, it is usually best in instruction if those struggles are either hidden, or else very clearly explained.
Matthew says ...
My lord this article is fantastic, for I am a secondary Spanish teacher at a large high-school in Texas. Not only is the a reoccurring problem at every school I have taught, we especially have this difficulty with our native Spanish-speaking intructors, especially at the previous school I was employed.

I am not a native-Spanish speaker, and like you Dr. Glover with math, I had to literally force myself to learn it more or less on my own. Now, as a teacher, I break down the tinniest and most important details for the students because I literally expect them to know nothing when they come through the door. THis is the biggest problem, as you have said, with the natural experts of a subject-matter: They assume the principles and conecpts are a given when they are not, and do not realize these concepts must be consistently reviewed and reinforced.

I know this even more through first-hand experience because I have also worked as an English instructor in Chile, and I could not believe how little I knew about my own language that the Chilean instructors were so knowledgeable about. It was impressive. Nevertheless, like here in the states, parents and students had a bias toward native-speakers because it is a popular trend, even when the instruction is often below par.
Jay says ...
The more I read about Doctor Glover the more I like him.


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