Tom Rademacher wrote a nice piece about my stepfather’s teaching:
You may remember my dad from one of my earlier posts, What it is like to be the son of Captain Derivative, and his picture:
Here are a couple of my thoughts about Rademacher’s article and my dad that will hopefully add a little “lagniappe” to the piece and Fred’s teaching:
The story of the virtually unsolvable problem. The article tells a story that makes it sound like I came home from school one day with a “virtually unsolvable” problem that my dad solved by himself and then just handed me the answer:
“…a math problem Prins cackled was virtually unsolvable. Reusch showed Scott how to arrive at the answer, and when Scott duplicated his father’s work on the board the next day in front of Prins, Prins agreed to serve as Reusch’s supervising teacher.”
Rademacher, who is not a teacher, missed the salient feature of the story that Fred related to him about his teaching, which is easy to do for even the best reporters. In fact, the actual story of the “virtually unsolvable” problem says a lot more about Fred as a teacher. Here’s the full story:
After my teacher, Brad Prins, offered the problem in first hour class, I worked on it alone between classes most of the day. When I got home I showed it to Fred and we worked on it together for quite a while, bouncing ideas back-and-forth with Fred making suggestions. Fred’s suggestions were usually enough for me to figure out a really hard problem on my own, but in this case we were not getting any closer to a solution: this problem was indeed a very different sort of beast than the “standard” challenge problems my teacher loved to give. So we decided to split up and work on it apart to give each other time to think. Fred eventually got to the answer first and explained the solution to me. The main point: All throughout the search for the solution Fred was encouraging and guiding me to work on this lovely, challenging problem on my own! I was deep into the problem when Fred found the solution, and it was exactly because I was already deep into the problem that I could understand the solution at all. (This problem wasn’t the usual “find the special key and the solution becomes easy” type of challenge problem. Instead, you needed to find several keys with each key unlocking the next challenge only after a page of calculations.)
I think the main point above is the real reason my teacher, Mr. Prins, took Fred on as a student teacher several years later. Mr. Prins was a truly amazing “carpe diem” teacher who (for a number of reasons) had a standing rule that he would not take on any student teachers. I firmly believe that he made his one and only exception for Fred not because Fred had solved an extra hard problem, but because of the actual story of our back-and-forth interaction where Fred helped me build up the mental framework needed to understand the very tricky and very nontrivial solution. When I showed a true understanding of the solution the next day in front of the class, Mr. Prins saw something more than just a problem solver in Fred: he saw the real essence of a teacher in him as well.
Not(!) a writer for Eureka Math. When I first started looking for writers for the Eureka Math/EngageNY curriculum, I basically was able to hire from a pool of some of the most awe-inspiring math teachers, professional developers, and authors in the country. Most everyone wanted to be part of this amazing project! And boy, did I ever press my advantage. Of course, some people had to understandably decline because they had projects that could not be delayed (like one famous teacher/educator who was finishing his graduate work), but many were able to free up their schedule to work on this very important project.
Fred was one of the master teachers I pressed hard to become a writer–for all the reasons (and more) described in Tom Rademacher’s article. It was a tempting offer: He was being given a chance to help millions of young students to really learn mathematics (not the Textbooks School Mathematics that most usually get). Yet, Fred repeatedly and politely refused, and the reason why had nothing to do with a schedule conflict. Are you surprised?
I wasn’t. And when you hear the reason, you shouldn’t be either. You see, Fred is first and foremost a math teacher. For him, a math teacher is not a stepping stone to another career. It is not a means to becoming an administrator, or an education professor, or an education policymaker, or even a curriculum writer. Fred considers himself to already be at the pinnacle of his career—to do anything else would be a step down from his old and noble profession.
Bright and talented young teachers are often wooed away from the classroom under the pretense that there is something “better” in the U.S. K-12 education system than being a teacher. Fred’s polite-but-firm refusal should remind all of us that most often there isn’t. Like a caring doctor, Fred has a vibrant practice centered around improving the lives of people living near him in real ways that a policymaker living a thousand miles away never could. And let’s not forget—Fred taught me a lot of mathematics, and I in turn went off to write a highly-praised curriculum that is now being used all over the country in every state. So who was more influential in the end, Fred or the policymakers? Young teachers: please meditate a while on Fred’s fulfilling life (by reading the article about him) before being seduced away from your own practice.
Amongst the master teachers I made similar offers to, Fred’s reaction to my offer was fairly common. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when Fred refused. And while I was fortunate to hire many fabulous master teachers to write for Eureka (who were often in a transitional period in their personal lives), I always respected the choice of the master teachers who felt they would be giving up their core practice.
(Photo: School News Network.)
CHANNEL: That’s News To Me
© 2016 Scott Baldridge