Thursday, October 23, 2003

Teaching's Not Difficult?

Kimberly Swygert from Number 2 Pencil sent me to read a post on Gene Expression, where the blogger attempts to rank different disciplines by difficulty. He believes that the more math is involved, the more difficult the discipline, at least roughly. He doesn't include careers, just academic disciplines, but in the comments section, various readers start discussing how various careers would rank. The author replies that he would rank teaching #99! Obviously, this guy has never spent time in a classroom with 32 12-year-olds!

He is obviously a scientist & mathematician who believes he has a difficult job (which he does) and has found a justification for ranking his job Very Difficult. As a teacher who believes I have a difficult job, let me challenge his rankings.

First of all, I don't think it does anyone any good to perpetuate the "math is harder than other subjects" myth. Believe it or not, math comes easily to some people! It did for me, at least until Calculus. Other people I know found math hard up until they tried Calculus, at which point they found it easy! Learning a language comes easily to some people, but not others. Analyzing literature and writing well comes easily to some people, but not others. Understanding complex ecosystem dynamics comes easily to some, but not others. Composing a visual image comes easily to my photographer roommate, but not to me. So, to begin with, "hard" is a relative term which varies by individual.

Complicating matters, math and science tend to be taught in a more elitist, alienating way (partly because of the "math is hard" myth). Before you jump down my throat, note the word TEND. Not always, just often. I found my math and science classes at college to be large, anonymous lecture classes, where the professors practically TRIED to scare people away by giving sink-or-swim exams. My humanities classes were generally more supportive (though not necessarily EASIER or less-demanding intellectually). So some people who might be capable of doing well in these subjects if supported and encouraged end up in other fields instead. Personally, I think that better teaching of math and science would make these fields seem less difficult and more accessible to all students.

Godless Capitalist suggests that people can't switch disciplines very easily going upwards in his ranking, but can generally switch in the downwards direction. It seems to me that to switch fields, you need to know something about the new field. I think it would be difficult for a physicist to write a professional-quality, publishable literary analysis, without taking some courses in the field. I think it would be difficult for a literature professor to do physics, without taking some additional coursework in the field. Both these people are at the top of their field, which requires specialized knowledge and skills. I would think each would need to acquire new knowledge and sharpen certain skills before taking on the other's career.

There's more to say on that, but I'm getting a headache.

Now, about teaching. Naturally, it would be easy for a physicist or mathematician to walk into a classroom of 32 students; establish rapport and authority; organize routines for handling the little details like collecting/distributing homework, taking attendance, etc.; monitor the behavior and achievement of 32 individuals more-or-less simultaneously; deliver a lesson that will help each individual develop thinking skills and gain knowledge in a specific subject area while progressing towards standards that are set equally high for everyone despite unequal prior knowledge; assess the students' learning accurately; etc., etc., etc. Heck, Godless Capitalist would probably be an excellent teacher the very first period, given how high his career ranks in comparison to teaching, #99! I could recommend him to a few schools in the Bronx...


Teachers may not require as many years of education as academics. Some of us may not being doing a great job, or may seem less intelligent or less competent than you mathematicians, and that's unfortunate. But our job requires us to monitor and respond to dozens of things all at once, ranging from subject-specific to emotional and social. Our subjects, clients, and patients are individual human beings who have extremely diverse needs but must gain a certain core of knowledge and skills. We see each of them for only an hour (at most) per day, and not even one at a time, but 30 or more simultaneously. We require excellent verbal skills, and those of us who teach math or science have also proven ourselves capable of earning an undergraduate degree in a mathematical or scientific field. No, we don't need to be on the cutting edge of our subject area like an academic does, but, then again, an academic doesn't need intimate knowledge of dozens - or hundreds - of changing, growing, individual minds (bodies, personalities).

You're welcome to visit my classroom anytime, Godless Capitalist.


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