# So Why Did You Go Into Teaching? (8 Ways Not to Answer)

1.

StrangerSo why did you go into teaching?

MeWell, it seemed like a rewarding way to… hey, I found five paperclips in my pocket!

StrangerThat’s nice. A rewarding way to what?

MeOh, you know, to help build a culture of… ooh, I forgot I had this paperclip in my hair!

StrangerUh-huh. A culture of…?

MeA culture of curiosity and critical thinking, which our country so desperately… hold on, there’s this metallic taste in my mouth…

StrangerDon’t tell me it’s a…

MeHey! A paper clip!

StrangerWhy do you have paperclips in all your clothing and bodily orifices?

MeHa! Yeah.

StrangerNo, seriously, why?

MeDoesn’t that happen to everybody?

# The Student Every Teacher Dreams About

1.

StudentWill this be on the test?

TeacherNo.

Student: Then I’d better pay extra attention and learn it now, since I probably won’t get around to reviewing it later.

Teacher: Yes! Precisely.

Student: Also, I have an insightful, on-topic comment to share. But it’s very long, so feel free to sit down and finish your coffee.

Teacher: Oh, if you insist.

# A Math Professor Consults on a Hollywood Movie

Movie Executive: So, do you have any feedback on the mathematics in the script?

Math Professor: Wait… it had mathematics?

Executive: Yes! That’s why we brought you in and gave you this free lunch.

Professor: Ah, you mean where the bomb counts down from 10 to 1? That was well-done. All the right integers, in just the right order.

Executive: No, no. For example, the villain’s chief scientist uses the secret equation to stop all the traffic in the city.

Professor: Ah… that. Tell me, what is a secret equation?

Executive: Let’s say you wanted to get every car in the city to stop, by hacking into the traffic system and turning the lights to red. What equation would a mathematician use?

Professor: That’s not what mathematicians do.

ExecutiveBut if you did, what would you use?

Professor: Traffic cones.

Executive: No, I mean with computers.

Professor: You’re using “mathematician” to mean a magical combination of a software developer and an evil wizard. I must be honest. I don’t know what methods such a person would use. Continue reading

# Math Experts Split the Check

Engineer: Remember to tip 18%, everybody.

Mathematician: Is that 18% of the pre-tax total, or of the total with tax?

Physicist: You know, it’s simpler if we assume the system doesn’t have tax.

Computer Scientist: But it does have tax.

Physicist: Sure, but the numbers work out more cleanly if we don’t pay tax and tip. It’s a pretty small error term. Let’s not complicate things unnecessarily.

Engineer: What you call a “small error,” I call a “collapsed bridge.”

Economist: Forget it. Taxes are inefficient, anyway. They create deadweight loss.

Mathematician: There you go again…

Economist: I mean it! If there were no taxes, I would have ordered a second soda. Continue reading

# A Conversation That Made My Day

Student #1: Look, Mr. Orlin, we all signed this petition!

Me: “We, the undersigned, would like to have Calculus all day, every day.” Hey, I’m glad you guys are enjoying the class.

Student #2: Can you change the schedule?

Me: Well, logistics aside, you guys only got two signatures on this.

Student #1: What are you talking about? Annie signed it too!

Me: Her name is in your handwriting. And she’s glaring at us.

Student #2: Look, it’s a petition. Take it or leave it.

# Learning is a Fluorescent Light

Me: I know this new concept feels hard. But you know what it’s like turning on a fluorescent light? It flickers on, then goes dark, then goes bright for an instant, then goes dark again…

Student #1: Then bright?

Me: Yes, because…

Student #2: And then dark again?

Me: Right. And what I…

Student #1: And then bright!

Me: Yes, yes. And eventually the light comes on, but it’s slow, and there are these alternating moments of illumination and darkness. And that’s how it is understanding tough math. You feel like you get it, then you don’t. There’s a moment where it’s perfectly clear, then a moment where it all seems hopeless. Your understanding flickers at first, but eventually it becomes steady and bright.

Student #3: Oh! I get the analogy!

Me: See? It’ll come to…

Student #3: Wait! I lost the analogy.

Me: Oh… well, I can…

Student #4: Ohhh! Now I get it!

Me: Hmm. Are you just mocking my…?

Student #4: No! It’s gone!

One student starts flicking the light switch off and on, as others cry and shout:

All students: It’s all so clear! No – I’ll never get it! Wait – I see! No – I’ve lost it! Hold on – yes!

Me: I love you guys. Also hate.

# Explain It To Me

A nearly-verbatim dialogue, in honor of one of the hardest-working students I’ve ever taught.

Student: Can you explain this problem to me?

Me: Sure, the idea is… Wait. You got it right.

Student: But I don’t feel like I did. I feel like I guessed.

(He proceeds to give a perfect explanation of the problem, justifying every detail.)

Me: See? You understand it.

Student: No, I just guessed.

Me: You “guessed” a flawless, conceptually motivated solution to the problem?

Student: Yes. You have to explain it to me.

Me: I mean… okay…

(I proceed to parrot back his explanation to him, virtually word for word.)

Student: Ah, thanks. That helps.

# Following Recipes

Another pep talk with the class, another metaphor hijacked. This is a theme in my life.

Me: Remember, guys. Math isn’t just about following a recipe.

Student #1: It isn’t?

Me: No! Math is about logical reasoning. If I only wanted to teach you how to be detail-oriented and copy an example, we’d have a cooking class. You’d still learn to follow directions, and at the end we’d have a tasty cake, instead of some silly graph. Continue reading

# The Graph Factory

I want my students to see graphing as a subtle, meaningful craft. But when I mess up and assign too many graphs for homework, they just sprint through them, cranking them out like cheap factory products. It goes something like this…

Me: How’s that graphing going?

Student: No time, man! I’ve got sixty logarithms that need to ship to customers tonight, and the assembly line’s been down for hours. I’m cranking out asymptotes by hand over here – I’ve got no time for your funny business!

Me: But why? What’s the point of these graphs?

Student: Hey, not my place to ask questions. I just hit my graph quotas, and try to make it home for dinner with the wife and kids.

Me: But you’re making mistakes. Sine curves don’t have sharp corners.

Student: So slap a warning label on ‘em, for all I care! Continue reading

# The Anxieties of Hermit Crabs

With the Trigonometry class struggling, I attempt a pep talk. As usual, the students swiftly grasp my metaphor – and then hijack it.

Me: You’ve seen hermit crabs, right? They move from shell to shell throughout their lives. And it’s scary for them to leave their warm, safe shells behind. It makes them feel anxious and vulnerable, because their pink little crab bellies are exposed.

Student #1: Poor crabs!

Me: But they keep on moving. And do you know why?

Student #2: Because life is pain! Continue reading