Inspiration, and the need for good teachers

So, there’s been something happening for the last few days in my family that has made me consider the subject of inspiration, and the need for good teachers.  I have a younger sister.  She’s just started her first year of high school.

She’s not great at math.

Now, my sister isn’t alone in this: I’m sure millions of teenagers feel this way.  I got high nineties in high school math, but even I wouldn’t say I was “good” at math.  I was good at school – good at studying and taking tests, and I worked at math and got good grades.  But that doesn’t mean that I liked math, or I just “got” math, like some people do.  I took my required first year math credit in university and then dumped calculus for stats like a hot rock and never looked back.

But the thing I perhaps never got, being at least proficient in math, was how not being good in math effects your self esteem. These are quotes from the app Whisper about math, and they’re all kind of horrible and brutal:

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These are kind of heartbreaking to me, because I think we can almost all relate to this in some way.  Maybe not math, but the feeling that we have when we fail at something is pretty much the same – we feel stupid and we hate ourselves, and that’s such an awful feeling.

I like the message of this one though, which I think is so true and which I’ve tried to impress on my sister to varying degrees of success.

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Being bad a math – or science, or art or whatever you think you’re bad at – doesn’t make you stupid.  My sister and I are very different people with different skills – I’m good at school and science and writing but I’m not easily social, can’t draw to save my life and still can’t yet make scrambled eggs (working on it). My sister is a beautiful artist who is much better at making friends then I am, and despite being 10 years younger then me, can cook about 10 times more things than me.  Again: we’re different people, with different skill sets and talents.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But, although I never considered myself good at math, I also never had grades that me or my parents had to worry about.  I took advanced math, pre-calculus and calculus because I wanted to get a BSc and go to med school, and that was that.  It’s a bit more complex for my sister, unfortunately, because – despite this being the dumbest thing I’ve actually ever heard – the math class that she takes now is going to affect what kind of degree she can take in university.  In the province where my family lives they have Advanced Math, Academic Math and Foundations Math, where the first two are university math and the third isn’t. My sister has previously been in Foundations Math, but entering high school she had to make the decision if she was going to take Academic instead,  Because, if she wants to do a nursing or science degree (both interests of hers), then she needs Grade 12 Academic Math, and it would suck to try and switch up in Grade 11 or something.

So, just to recap – at 14, a girl is expected to make a decision that will affect her ability to get a university degree that will probably, at most, require one math credit.

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Because yeah, let’s face it, the likelihood of you using the math you learned in high school in your future career? Low. I’m not saying it isn’t important – it’s the fundamentals of how we understand the universe – but it shouldn’t keep someone from a bachelor’s degree in biology so they can study whales, or from saving lives as nurse.

The real world has calculators.

(Also, I promise I’m getting to the part about inspiration and teachers).

But yeah, that’s the problem we had to look at, so after much family debate my sister decided to take Academic Math this year, work with a tutor and try and keep those doors open to her.

And then she got to her math class.

Her syllabus, handed to her after being in class for presumably less than 10 minutes, featured this gem:

“If you’ve struggled in math before, this isn’t the class for you.”

This is also the part of the post, good reader, where I become a little bit angry.

So, right off the bat, my sister, whose confidence level is already shaky when it comes to math, takes a hit.

Four days later, the class takes a review quiz, to see where they are in terms of knowledge. You know the type – basically useless, because it’s been at least a whole summer since you even thought about the subject? (See, my entire recent rural placement where I remembered nothing). My sister, entirely understandably, fails the quiz.  Her teacher, having taught her for  a grand total of 4 days at this point, takes the opportunity to take her aside and encourage her that, “based on her previous math performance and her score on the quiz, he thinks she should drop back down to Foundations. That he doesn’t think she’ll do well in this class.”

This, good reader, is where I get really livid.

I understand the value of tough love, of being real, of telling it like it is.  But here we have a teacher, whose main job should be to try and inspire children to do better, telling a student he’s had for 4 days that she should just drop down a level.  Saying to a student:

I don’t think you can do it.

In a few sentences, that shitty teacher managed to shatter the confidence of a 14 year old girl. A girl who went into that class with fears, and basically had then all thrown back at her by the one person who should never have done that.  A good teacher shouldn’t just teach you how to do math, or learn a language or paint.

A good teacher should teach you to believe you can do those things.

A good teacher should inspire you to learn and create, not shut down your dreams.  This incident with my sister reminded me of an incident of my own at high school (the same high school my sister is attending) where a teacher asked us how many of us wanted to be a doctors, and a few of us put up our hands.  That teacher then followed that up by saying, “Well, I’ve only had one student actually get into medical school in my years of teaching.”

I believe my response was to think, well I guess I’ll be the second. (I might have actually said that, I’m not sure – I was kind of sassy).

Now, years later, I get that this teacher wasn’t saying that to be mean. I get that they meant that medical school is hard, ridiculously competitive, and that getting in is a really hard thing to do.  They were trying to be realistic; not everyone who wants to be a doctor at 16 ends up a doctor, for a variety of reasons.  And honestly, that comment really motivated me – years later, when I finally got my acceptance letter, one of my first thoughts was basically told you so to that teacher.

But what about all the students who have the opposite reaction I did to statements like that? Who hear their teacher, someone who they view as their guide to learning, basically say to them I don’t think you can do it?

I think, perhaps, they end up believing that.

And that’s really unbearably sad, and utterly unnecessary.  If those students who had teachers who were just a little more willing to spend the time to believe in them, I wonder what they could accomplish.  Looking back, I can’t say I ever had one person who really inspired me to go into medicine – even the obstetrician who delivered me told me not to do OBs on account of the lifestyle – but here I am, still persevering on.

So remember this, when you are striving for your dreams and feel like you can’t do it.

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You can do it.

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m mortified. What a horrible thing that teacher did! I only see that kind of statements as a total failure to understand what being a teacher is about. It’s never the pupil’s fault – if they don’t learn perhaps that teacher should look in the mirror and wonder why that is… If your sister has troubles, she should be given priority and encouragement! My mother is a teacher and we’ve talked about this kind of thing on numerous occasions.

    1. dellaliz19 says:

      I completely agree with you. Teachers like that, no matter how “nice” or “funny” they are, are failures to their students. I sometimes worry that teachers like that to try “push off” potential students who do need that extra time, which is disappointing to say the least 😦 But thank goodness there are good teachers who do believe in students, like I’m sure your mother is 🙂

  2. Malaika says:

    Great post! Thank you for addressing this.

  3. Important issue to raise for someone at such an impressionable age. The irony is that the latest direction in Math instruction is moving away from mere computation to “thinking mathematically” which is actually applicable to more areas.

    1. dellaliz19 says:

      Yes, I agree. Students would probably benefit more daily from a more “foundations” math course. I don’t doubt the value of math, but that science math university credit requirement always seemed like just having a credit for the sake of having a credit, not for the betterment of the degree.

  4. Farah says:

    Couldn’t agree more with this post! Teachers should be the ones to inspire and help students to achieve their ambitions. As for the teachers comment to your sister, it was completely uncalled for. Surely he should have been more understanding.
    I had a similar situation to yours when it came to applying to med school. A teacher really grilled me on applying to med school and although now I can see perhaps she was doing it to see if I genuinely wanted to do it, I can’t help but remember how devastated I was because I felt as if she put a massive downer on my main ambition.

    1. dellaliz19 says:

      Yes, needless to say I remain unimpressed with that teacher. And yes, I also think that teachers and guidance counsellors could be a bit more positive regarding students who want to apply to medical school. Honestly, I can’t imagine that any student who doesn’t really want it is likely to make it through the whole admissions and application process anyways, so a little encouragement and belief couldn’t hurt either way!

  5. Homaira says:

    I love your Pooh Bear quote at the end. That’s the “inspiration” part of this post, for sure. 😉
    Oh, and thanks for liking my sleep-deprived post! Pooh Bear would have lifted my spirits at that moment, I think.

    1. dellaliz19 says:

      A.A Milne and Pooh Bear had some of the most inspirational – and wise – quotes I’ve ever found. Maybe everything you ever need you really did learning in Kindergarten. And you’re quite welcome 🙂 Hope everything is going well for you at Hogwarts 😉

      1. Homaira says:

        I think I need to read the original Pooh Bear books again. I was probably too young to appreciate the tidbits of wisdom when I last read them.

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