David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

A scant 33 years ago, at the ripe old age of 22, I eked out a precarious existence as a middle school math teacher at a private day school. I loved teaching; I loved my colleagues on the faculty; I loved my students.

But their parents scared me to death.

I remember one conversation vividly: “Why was this question on the test?” Mrs. Bethel began, her hand firmly on my arm. “Don’t you think this concept is too difficult for seventh grade? she went on. My eyes followed her angry finger past the C+ written on top of her daughter’s paper to the equation “X + 3 = -2” further down the page.

I might have explained how I had taught the children to add positive and negative numbers. “If the temperature is two degrees below zero and the temperature goes down three degrees, it’s five below.” I might have mentioned how I had drawn number lines on the board and had the children point to ‘negative five’ then count “One, two, three” and end up at negative two. I might have told Mrs. Bethel about how I had the children line up holding big signs “Negative Two,” “Negative Five” and had one student move three giant steps from negative five to negative two. (OK, I never actually did the lesson this way, but I wish I had.)

I didn’t say that I had tried to teach to all the sensory modalities, visual, auditory as well as tactile/kinesthetic. I didn’t say that I had showed up for extra help every day after school (and that Mrs. Bethel’s daughter had not.)

Instead I justified giving the problem on the test as follows: I told Mrs. Bethel that I had assigned “X + 4 = -3” for homework. I showed Mrs. Bethel that I had given the problem “X + 5 = -1” on a quiz.

In that moment, I took a significant step in the direction of becoming a bad teacher.

Because I realized that being creative in the classroom, that helping my students to love learning in general and to love math specifically, that getting excited about curriculum wouldn’t help me in conversation with the Mrs. Bethels of the world. What would help me with the conversation was being able to justify the questions I asked on the tests. What would help me with the conversation was being able to quantify what I had done.

I have written about how silly it is for teachers to ask students to memorize meaningless information. “Memorize the names of the 67 counties in Florida” is my favorite horrific example. What assignment could be more vacuous? What task could possibly make chilren hate learning geography more? What list is easier to find on the Internet? The names of the 67 counties in Florida are a dozen nanoseconds away.

But what if the teachers assigning this inanity are scared, just like I was? What if a complaint from Mrs. Bethel can derail their careers? What if they don’t want to have a conversation with Mrs. Bethel in the first place? Helicopter parents, and their new counterpart, TANK parents, are more prevalent and vociferous in our schools now than they were three decades ago when I was standing in front of a classroom. Here’s a simple way to keep the Mrs. Bethels at bay: Only make assignments that can be quantified. Susie memorized 60 of the 67 counties or 89.5 %. That’s a B+. Johnny got 27 wrong, for 59.7%. Johnny gets an F.

How much did my students learn about solving equations? How much did they come to love math? How much did my enthusiasm for the subject and my love of kids and love of teaching come through? These questions are much harder to answer with percentages.

I wonder how many young teachers get discouraged and end up teaching and testing only that which can be quantified and justified.

It’s a shame.

In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be grades or pressure. Students would learn at their own pace and Mrs. Bethel would have no reason to come to school.

In the meantime, in our imperfect world, my hat is off to those teachers who still try to impart a love of their subject and a love of learning. I hope the parents of those lucky students will understand.



Copyright © David Altshuler 1980 – 2022    |    Miami, FL • Charlotte, NC     |    (305) 978-8917    |    [email protected]