A Tale of Two Teachers

If you Google vaunted concert pianist Lang Lang, you will come across a cautionary "tale of two teachers."

As a middle schooler, Lang Lang was expelled by a teacher for "lack of talent," a summary judgment that threatened to block his admission into the Beijing Conservatory of Music. Fortunately for the young musician (and the world), his other teacher invited him to "play along" to a Mozart Sonata in order to help the boy out of his ensuing funk. As Lang Lang recalls it, "playing the K.330 brought me hope again." With confidence restored and passion re-kindled, Lang Lang persevered and is today one of the greatest performers of his generation.

For many middle school children who study mathematics at an age when they first look to adults outside those in their immediate family to define themselves, a teacher's thumb's up or down can shape their destiny. Unlike Lang Lang's story, theirs may not result in a happy ending. My own middle school story illustrates this point.

As a Baby Boomer chosen for the post-Sputnik "New Math" program, I was drawn into the wonders of applied mathematics by an enthusiastic seventh grade math teacher who brought to life dynamic concepts of quantity, structure, space and change. Inspired, I was determined to continue courses in math and algebra that would open doors to exciting career choices in architecture, engineering, chemistry or physics.

The next year, it was over: a steely, unimaginative eighth grade teacher droned through page after page of a textbook, shaming us, her bored young charges, for our "lack of talent." Today, as an attorney who has spent decades working closely with engineers and scientists, I still recall the thrill of my first teacher's inspiration and my subsequent regret that the path toward a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career was diverted by the second teacher.

The new school year brings fresh opportunities to engage our students in mathematics. While there is a lot of national talk about recruiting and retraining teachers in order to meet Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards (advocated by organizations like Broadcom Foundation and newly minted in my state this month), impact of new curricula will take well over a decade, and a lot of kids will lose heart in the meantime. Teachers, school administrators and stakeholders in STEM education--for example, Broadcom, where I work--should join together to take immediate steps to make sure kids at our local schools do not turn away from mathematics.

So what are some steps every math teacher can take this year? Simply put: take a few pages out of the book of Lang Lang's second teacher.

Number 1: STEP UP to the notion that every student is innately capable of learning math if properly engaged. Wonder Years actress and best-selling author (Math Doesn't Suck, Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss) Danica McKellar sums it up: "Students never think it can be the teacher's fault and so I thought I was stupid. ... Then we got a new teacher who made math accessible. That made all the difference and I learned that it's how you present it that makes it scary or friendly."

Number 2: STEP IN and take a look at each student as an individual with an exciting career ahead that will inevitably require math proficiency. Then figure out how to capture that child's interest by complementing textbook instruction with activities that explore how math is applied in everyday experiences. Try to expose students to STEM careers they may not yet know exist. Volunteers at companies like Broadcom are eager to visit classrooms and bring math alive for students who might one day aspire to become engineers with cool jobs like theirs. In other words, take advantage of what the private sector can offer.

Number 3: STEP OUT of the box whenever possible to challenge a student. In his breakthrough new book The U.S. Technology Skills Gap (Wiley 2013), Gary Beach tells the story of Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet, who was bored because he finished his fifth grade algebra textbook by mid-year. "Mr. T," as Cerf called his teacher, walked out of the classroom and returned with a seventh grade algebra book.

As I look back at my own experience, if teacher #2 had taken any one of these three steps, it might have been enough to keep me excited about more math courses in high school. While writing this blog, I was also reminded that just as a new school year presents fresh learning opportunities, so does every day. So I am stepping up myself: I am working my way through Calculus for Dummies and loving every minute of it!