Given that I spent April's essay highlighting my favorite subject of math, I think it's only fair that I highlight my favorite aspect of math. While problem-solving is fun and could get you a million dollars, my favorite aspect isn't necessarily problem-solving. It's education, which I’ll admit still has problem-solving intertwined in it.

I wanted to be a college teacher, because I wanted to help students who have just been thrusted into adulthood find their footing in this level of math education. At the near end of my third year in college, I decided to apply to graduate school. I may have lied here and there about applied math research, I didn’t even know that side of the world back then. I needed to bend the truth a bit (sorry application readers) or I’ll never get into a program.

Three years later, I’m about to finish my third semester in graduate school. More significantly, I’m about to finish one semester of being THE teacher of a class (as opposed to an assistant).

I say this, because I had originally planned to write about why I loved the idea of teaching. It was the *idea* that I gravitated towards. I was going to write about teaching before I actually do it-- to make it more concrete than just an idea.

I spent so many hours in high school and college helping, tutoring, lifting my peers’ learning, and it was so fulfilling. I was a summer away from teaching my own class, and I felt scared. What if teaching is just a fun idea and not really something I find enjoyment or fulfillment in? What if I did all this work only to realize this wasn’t what I wanted? It was this nagging feeling that I might not actually like teaching students, that it was only my peers that made the act fulfilling, or that it was only the idea of teaching. I was anxious.

The first day of classes arrived. I teach first thing in the morning. I had fun. Seventeen out of sixteen students showed up and I made a joke that there was an imposter Among Us. (We figured out the issue soon after.) The first day went well.

Now, (almost) a whole semester has gone by, and I had fun. It wasn’t just the idea. I actually enjoy teaching and it will probably be my career in the foreseeable future.

So, what is it about education that is so alluring to me? Why did I enjoy this crazy semester so much? To be frank, I don’t know. This Monthly Math-y series has evolved into my own space to unpack concepts and topics more openly, allowing myself to learn as I go as opposed to knowing the answers already. So, walk with me through this.

I like helping students learn new things, not just in math. I was lucky enough to teach a course that moved at a nice pace. I never felt too rushed to move through topics, so it helped students absorb the material. The epiphanies, the “OHHH I get it” moments, are so precious to me. Seeing students grow and develop their own understanding is like the chicken in the adobo, it’s the main reason you’re having this experience.

To continue the adobo analogy, the oily, garlic, soy sauce broth equivalent of teaching would probably be mentoring I get to do. I think I chose to target college students (versus K-12 students) because of the opportunity to help a student outside of just my subject. My ego says that I have a lot of life experience and life knowledge to impart onto younger students. College wasn’t the best time of my life, and that’s not an uncommon statement to hear. So, what moved me to aim for college teaching is to help students find their footing in this daunting system just like how professors did for me.

Just like with cooking adobo, I always improve. As much as I love teaching, I love learning even more. It’s no surprise that teaching is fulfilling because I am learning how to teach, how to be a better explainer, and how to help students in more ways than just blasting them with “here’s how you factor”. I feel like every week I learn something new after teaching my class. I learned which topics to prepare more material for, I learned how to read students better, and most importantly, I learned how to be comfortable.

UNL’s math program has a pedagogy class specifically for first time student-turned-instructors. I’ve learned so much from this class, from theory to practice, and from my peers who are also teaching their first class. One of my favorite conversations in pedagogy was about assessment and how we need to be aware if we’re assessing what we want to assess and if the data we gain is what we want to gain. I felt like I leveled up as an instructor. I realized that I have to be more critical with how I choose problems to give to students. For example, if the assessment is on solving systems of linear equations, then the problem shouldn't bog the students with convoluted arithmetic.

Let’s bring in the side dishes. I attend the Math Education Seminar (MEDS) where I hear about these fancy terms about how math is taught and the circumstances surrounding education. MEDS gives me perspective and assurance that the techniques I’m employing in my classroom have research backing its validity. One of my favorite conversations in MEDS was about motivation. We admitted that people are tired and that this pandemic has really changed how students interact with their education. We don’t know how to spin that into a positive learning moment. Maybe when I have more time to unpack that, I’ll learn something new.

To conclude our walk and dinner, teaching is something hard to articulate why I like it. I still think I barely scratched the surface. One semester of teaching is done, and plenty more to go. Here’s a picture of a problem I used to review the substitution technique. For context, I challenged my class to all get the highest mastery level on their first attempt and I’ll get them donuts.

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Uploaded 2021 November 27. This is a part of a monthly project which you can read about
here.
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