Why Dummies Make Good Teachers.

I’ve always been quick to point out when there’s something I don’t “do”. Something that isn’t “me”.

I’m relatively multi-faceted in the right-brain areas of life and I think that’s what makes it easy for me to be that way. I’ve been told I’m pretty good a decent number of things. So when someone throws a fluke compliment my way for anything that doesn’t fall within my established area of talent, I tend to step down fast. I assure them quick as a bunny that no, no, it was luck if anything – cooking/sewing/whatever is really one of those things I just don’t have an aptitude for and definitively never will. That person over there? That’s their thing. Have you tasted/seen what they can do? It’s amazing!

Math is one of those things. Like most people, it isn’t that I’m terrible at it – it’s that it intimidates me like no other subject. So much that if someone were to blurt out at me: QUICK! Give me the answer to the easiest math equation in the universe! I’d break into a sweat before I heard a single digit out of their mouth. It would just be my immediate, gut response to hearing the word “quick” + numbers in the same sentence, and the only reason I’m not embarrassed to admit it is because I’m not alone. This is ridiculously common.

Studies are now suggesting that it might be because of parents passing an expected anxiety onto their children, which self-fulfills down the road. Math is just an intimidating subject, according to this normalized way of thinking, and unless you’re born with an aptitude for it, you should just expect a struggle. Not to suggest that a person can’t work their way up to a certain confidence level, but to be able to do so would probably make you the exception.

All of that ^ up there? That’s crap. But because generations of children have inherited this idea from parents who repeatedly told them, “Oh, math has never been my subject, honey. How ’bout we do spelling homework until dad gets home to help with algebra”, it’s more or less become everybody’s standard. We convey to our kids, without actually saying it, that most people get by just fine on a moderate understanding of it, which is to say that we probably aren’t setting our expectations for how well they might do, very high.

Most people can work through a math problem well enough, but few I’ve ever seen can do it without second-guessing every other step and being sure to check the answer over before offering it up to someone else as fact.

If I had one thing to do over in my school years it would have been to pay closer attention in all of my math classes. I feel like adults who are quick with numbers have such an edge of even people like me who are good at everything else. <– That was a joke, trust me. Yes, I have tasted my pasta fragioli, why?

So, the thing with being a homeschooling mom of 7th grade is that you have to be able to do seventh grade math at, you know, at least a 7th grade level. So far, I’ve been absolutely kind of (and not at all a weird amount of) shocked at how much fun I think this stuff is. But also, at how I can actually do it without wanting to shoot myself in the brains. Problem is, Mary still does want to shoot herself in the brains – usually before the first mention of a number is even made. Clearly, it’s the intimidation bug at work. And my job, as teacher, is to squash it.

Okay, how?

The very first thing I had to do before I could teach effectively is to forget the idea that I am not a teacher.

That was hard for me because I have a number of friends and relatives who actually are professional teachers and paid good money for a college education that gave them the right to call themselves that. Here is where I struggle not to get into all the statistics that say homeschooled students taught by mothers without degrees generally speaking do significantly better than public schooled students with very talented teachers, because it’s misleading. I don’t think it’s because those degrees aren’t necessary — I think that if a talented teacher were to homeschool his/her own offspring, they’d probably perform miracles and that if a stay at home mom without a degree tried to teach a classroom full of kid she didn’t know, there would be catastrophe. I just think that the benefits of homeschooling are powerful, and that as long as the parent who’ll be teaching takes the task as seriously as someone who would consider homeschooling likely does, that it isn’t necessary here.

It isn’t about selling yourself short or giving yourself more or less credit than you deserve. It’s about the only one who stands to get sold short at all: the student. As long as he or she thinks that they don’t have a “real” teacher, they won’t have one. You Will Not Be One To Them, and that’s imperative.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from homeschooling, it’s that knowing and understanding the information you’ll be teaching isn’t the half of it. Most of the responsibility you have lies in helping the student to understand and appreciate the material, which is not the same animal. You’d think that the more solid your own understanding of a subject is, the easier it is to teach but I don’t think that’s always the case for two reasons.

1.) The Dummy Factor. I had a science teacher in middle school who said that he would always be a better teacher than the woman down the hall who taught the same subject because he was much dumber. And he was. Probably half of what I remember from school, I learned in his class. His theory was that when you understand something too well, it can be hard to remember why learning it might suck. Whereas, a fellow dummy can relate.

This always reminded me of that Einstein quote: “If you can’t explain it to your grandmother, you don’t know it well enough.” I always tell Mary when we’re recording our findings from a science experiment that by the same token, you can know everything there is to know about something, but it does nobody any good if you can’t effectively pass that knowledge onto anyone else. Conveying what you know and why it matters is what counts.

2.) Butterflies. I’ve known what it’s felt like to be intimidated by math as an adult and it’s embarrassing even when you know that (statistically or even physically within a room) you’re in good company. So being refreshed on it and realizing I actually can be pretty quick is super (a totally regular amount of) exciting. Like butterflies! Which makes teaching it more fun, which makes learning it more… well, possible. It’s like the butterflies you get when you first fall in love. I love my husband more today than I did when we first met – but the first time he ever gave me butterflies, I Would.Not.Shut.Up about him. Teaching stuff I’ve always known about grammar is still enjoyable, but getting to teach things about grammar that have stumped me for a long time gets me so giddy about passing it onto Mary that I’m like, “Dude! You will use this! This is so cool to know! Show it off to everybody!”

Mary’s at a point in the year now where the fact that she knows more than her friends about subjects they’re learning about at the same time back in her old public school is showing. There have been at least five times she’s mentioned it to me. She’s actually said that it’s difficult sometimes not to brag about it. (Now, obviously, I don’t want to foster competition between she and her friends — but it’s infinitely awesome to hear your kid feel proud of how successfully they’re doing in school.)

That isn’t to say that she doesn’t still try to tell me once in a while (usually after I’ve pissed her off or have had to ride her pretty hard about giving more effort) that homeschooling sucks. But she doesn’t say that I’m not a real teacher. The proof is in the pudding. She takes me more seriously. I take me more seriously. And more learning happens because of it.

So I’m curious… (and this question is open to anybody at all: homeschoolers, professional teachers, parents):

What techniques or theories have helped you teach most successfully? What important lessons did you pick up about teaching in your first few years?  

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