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Teaching really has its moments.   There are times you strive for, and there are times you have to be patient.   There are also times when students say things that make you question why education is a good idea.   Is everybody worth teaching?

Most of the time, I just take a deep breath and remind myself that I can help students with their ignorance even if I can’t help them with gross stupidity.

It comes down to the fact that teachers are mentors.   Which periodically makes us confessors after a fashion.   Teachers do like to share the things said to them.

Here are some fairly commonplace statements:

Will I ever use this?

No, I’m teaching you stuff for purely whimsical reasons.  Or maybe because it is a precursor to more practical skills.   Although you can avoid needing advanced mathematics if you want to spend your life working in fast food.    Good luck with that.

 Did we do anything important in class last time?

Sorry, I’m afraid we just talked about the latest episode of [sitcom] followed by a brisk discussion of [sportsball].   We delayed relaying important information or having skill related discussions until you returned to class.

Do I need to take the test?

You are a grown up.   You can decide to take the test or get a zero and fail.

You know, this class has made me start smoking again.

Aw shucks.   Students say the sweetest things.  I feel the same way about you sometimes.


Some statements are in an entirely different league:


I’m not really getting this stuff, but I think its because I’m really high right now.

I think I figured out your difficulty in class.  Your education should start with your life choices.   Would “sobriety” work for a homework assignment?

I couldn’t do my homework because my husband is home now and keeps expecting me to perform my ‘wifely’ duties.

I honestly couldn’t tell whether she was complaining or bragging.   She was definitely trying to get me to give her extensions on her homework though.

Note:  bragging about you sex life will not garner you sympathy or get you out of doing work.

I know it’s the last week, but can I turn in all of the homework and makeup all of the tests?

I have to admit, this was my all time favorite.   In large part because I was able to look him straight in the eye and say:   “No, you cannot make up the entire class in the last week.   You skipped all of the tests, and attended less than half of the classes.   There is no way for you to pass the class.  I honestly don’t know why you bothered showing up this week.  If you decide to retake the class, you will need to show up.”


Sometimes, I am laughing with you.   I make no promises though, I may laugh at you.   Be honored that I listened.

Being a teacher means encouraging your students.  They need encouragement to get over the tough process of making mistakes.   Sometimes you need to remind yourself that this is the process of learning.

Doubt will kill their dreams more than incompetence will.

Of course, it also is difficult to encourage students when they are in the midst of making mistakes…  I mean they can really try your patience at times.  I’ve said it before, and I will continue to say:   patience isn’t just a virtue, it is an utter necessity.   People tend to rise (or fall) to the level of expectations, so if you give up on them then they are that much more likely to give up on themselves.  Slap on that smile and cheer them on, because if they give up now then the next time it may be worse.

Occasionally, it is nice if they cheer for you too… but that happens later, after they forget making mistakes.   Hopefully.

For now, bring on the pom-poms.   Break out the cheerleader outfit.   Keep them going.

The show must go on.


Remember:   they will say worse things to themselves than you can say to them.

(Now I need to watch some horror to cheer me up.   I can only take so much “positive attitude” happy-clappy crap before I want to watch the world burn.)

Whenever my students complain about the amount of work that I assign them, I remind them that while they have to do them once, I get to do them 35 times.    At which point they laugh and get to feel nominally better about the whole proposition.

So let me back up a bit.    Most quarters I get to use some online homework, but it looks like my (free) system deactivated my account after the site was hacked.   So I’m back to all paper homework for the quarter.   I scheduled myself some time to deal with it… and I’m still a little swamped.

I did a marathon grading session today.  I also watched a horror movie marathon at the same time.     I’m not sure whether the screen or student papers had more red on them.    I know for certain that I was more distressed by my quizzes than I was by zombies.

Mmmmm…. Headshots are pretty.

Soothing, soothing violence.


So I’ve been incommunicado for the last few weeks.    Sorry about that, life happens, and sometimes internet connections are squirrely.   My summer has been a good one:   bungee jumping,  travel, Netflix marathons, playing my way through a few video games, and parties that I can never discuss with my students.    I have to admit that I’m ready to go back to school though.

I’ve been neck deep in writing my syllabi last week.    I like to make certain that everything is in place for the coming term:   planning the lecture schedule, homework, acts of cruelty, classroom policies, and other classroom tweaks.    One of the questions I have to ask:   how evil will it be?   Online homework, or paper?   Do I give bonus points?   What should I make them sing if their cell phone goes off in class?   How much flex time can I build in?

Spelling things out explicitly in the syllabus is a very helpful tool for instructors and for students.   I make sure to spell out everything from classroom expectations, grading scales, and the ever important disclaimer “classroom policies may be changed to suit the needs of the class or the instructor.”

I feel a little like I’m laying traps for my students.

They are waiting for me at school now.


Game on.

You may be able to get by without math, but you won’t be able to get by without integrity.

Everybody lies.  This is a pretty well established fact.    The bad news is that we don’t realize most of the times we lie.   We constantly edit the narrative of our lives to better fit… ourselves.   Whether we know it or not, a great deal of our own memories and sense of self is constructed in order to make ourselves feel better.   People justify their own actions and emotions at any given time, and as time goes on we also revise our own memories (or even just the stories we tell) to paint ourselves in a better light.

As far as I can tell, this is just a natural part of the human psyche.   If you think about it, you’ve probably witnessed others doing it.   If you think about it hard, you can spot where you’ve done it yourself.  Humans are social animals, and this isn’t just an individualized phenomenon.   From groups as small as a junior high school clique, to bigger places like megachurches, and even nations do these things.   They filter information and color experiences through their own collective bias, sometimes with horrible results.   (On a global scale I can think of AIDS denialism, as one example)

This is why it is so important to be able to have the cognitive and intellectual tools to evaluate new claims.   Or old ones.

There are countless tools to this:  you can use a therapist to help you through patches of cognitive dissonance, and this can be good.   Or you can educate yourself, and use some of your own tools.   The point is that you can’t always trust everything you think.    I like to think that as a teacher I can help to give my students some of these tools.   Critical thinking is hard skill to master, and not one that is always comfortable to use.   How often do you honestly think about the quality of your own thought?

There are some pretty good signs that you may be deceiving yourself:   absolutes concerning people are a good one. Reliance on one viewpoint without examining counterarguments is another.   And of course, if you honestly feel that your sense of identity or way of life is threatened by more information, then something is wrong. It isn’t easy changing your view of things, but it does mean that you have a clearer picture of the world.

One thing that I admire about the sciences, is that when they are wrong, they revise their worldview to incorporate better information. They aren’t always quick, but they are good about self-examination.

So… I’ve been wrong about stuff before.   I will again.

… just not today.


Well, it is final’s week for summer quarter at last.   I have loved my class this quarter, they have done fantastic work and made some pretty remarkable breakthroughs.

So here is what I’m going to be doing my grading to this quarter:


And now I go apply for unemployment.   Woo*fucking*hoo.   Summer vacation (hopefully without starvation).

“Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” Ralph Waldo Emerson

How often have you wanted to learn something, and just didn’t know how to proceed?   Or desire to get fit, but no real plan to do so.   I’ve heard people say they want to “learn naturally” and not want to have any barriers to their education.   And then they may complain as to not having appropriate material to suit their incredibly vague needs.

One of the barriers that a lot of students face is the necessity of structure.   From setting aside set times to meet and study, to a (hopefully organized) calendar of topics to cover.   Sprinkle in to that regular practice and some benchmarks and you can actually make progress towards learning something!

It goes way beyond classrooms though.   What do you do without a plan?   How well does that work out?   Even if you don’t stick to your plans, at least they give you a jumping off point. Once you have a pattern that you can learn from, you can then adapt it for other things!

Let me be absolutely clear: there is a world of difference between the regimented world that Emerson talked about, and the necessary structure of our daily lives.   Structure isn’t a straightjacket holding you back, but climbing harness… not comfortable but necessary.

(wow… I suck at analogy…)

I understand that freeform classrooms can be interesting.   I can see how a lot of emergent things can be created in a classroom, and some very interesting creative projects can happen as well. (But also notice: there is still an underlying classroom structure!   Muahahahaha!)

So with all due respect to Emerson, bite me.   Even creative people keep a schedule, and even consistent people can be misunderstood.

There is a lot to be said for being detail oriented.   Big things are made up of little things, and little mistakes can bloom in to full blown disasters if you aren’t careful.    Details matter.     Sometimes though, focus on details can eclipse the creative flow of a process and make it joyless.

Have you ever played an instrument, and just thought exclusively of the notes you were playing?    My guess is that it didn’t sound very good.

Or have you run, and tried to focus on your form and gait?   Awkward, awkward, awkward!

Let alone talking to people.   Say you’re at a party and you see someone intriguing… and you go up and are focused so much on what you are going to say, that you end up  feeling like a total fool?

How does this relate to teaching?     As teachers, we often teach certain skills.   Whether it is constructing a sentence,  multiplying numbers, or deconstructing literature, the details of the process are often foremost in our minds.   There does come a point where we need to switch gears from the detail oriented to the overarching process.    Teaching confidence in newfound skills and just… going with the flow.

Letting goA couple of things need to happen before this transition from focus on details to overall process.   The first step is building trust in their abilities, followed by trust in the process.   Once a student sees that they are working from a solid foundation along workable lines, then it becomes much easier for them to relax into a greater process.   From the specifics to the general, students will learn to do big things made up of the little skills they have learned.  And it is so rewarding as you see those details click into place, transforming from mere knowledge and information into genuine understanding.

This is one of the things that I think we should keep in mind as teaching migrates toward recorded lectures and computerized drills.   Various media can demonstrate individual skills fairly well, but people will always need an overview for how those skills fit together.   Teachers are need to show how to see beyond the details and make the process flow into something that feels natural.   Or how to go from playing notes, to playing a song.

Only then do people find genuine joy.   When it moves away from laboring over details, and more about play.

As I write this, I’m also reminded to “let the details go” in my teaching from time to time, and just go with the flow.


I asked a friend yesterday what I should write about, and she said “paranoid schizophrenia”.     I think she had some suspicion what I would do with this sort of instruction, so if you take offense… blame J–.   I know the strangest people.     It’s quite awesome, really.

Paranoid Schizophrenia vs. Study of Mathematics

The study of mathematics is a mental process that is marked by visualization of unreal systems, feelings of of persecution from instructors and textbook writers,  spending obsessive amounts of time analyzing bizarre systems, and anxiety.   Schizophrenia is a mental illness that can cause auditory or visual hallucinations, delusions, paranoia,  bizarre thought patterns, and disorganized speech and anxiety.

Trying to understand either what a math textbook or a schizophrenic may be telling you is frequently an exercise in futility, unless you have some greater context with which to try to make sense of it.   Even so, the internal logic of a mathematician may break down and you may find them staring blindly into space for a long time.    Bouts of depression are common.

The treatment of schizophrenia is often at institutions which are in danger of defunding.

Ahem… (do I even need to say it?)

Fortunately, the outlook and prognosis for both mathematicians and schizophrenics is depends largely on their social support  network.   With adequate socialization (and sometimes medication), mathematicians can be integrated into the workplace and will lead healthy, productive lives.    Schizophrenic also enjoy this outlook, although the role of medication is somewhat more important.

While schizophrenia and the study of mathematics are often misunderstood, feared and frequently avoided, both will benefit from greater social acceptance and support.



 This is satire.   In reality schizophrenia is a disorder that affects about 1% of the population.   People with schizophrenia can live active and healthy lives with treatment, and treatment for this illness has come a long way in the last few decades.   Untreated, this is a scary disease… both to its sufferers and to their loved ones.   Mental illness is stigmatized to a terrible degree.   Having a mental illness is no more shameful than having blue eyes or red hair… it is the result of biological processes.  But like many uncontrolled biological processes, many people seem to have an unreasoning fear, and discomfort around the subject.


My opinion, as with a lot of social issues, is to educate yourself.   Schizophrenic people are people, deserving of dignity and respect.   Whereas the study of mathematics is more of a choice, and for many folks just as scary and offputting.

One of the things that I have to deal with is students who have a hard time taking tests.   Now I know that there is a lot of hullabaloo about “teaching to the test”, but there is also a clear need to teach people how to take tests.

I teach future doctors, nurses, and law enforcement people.   Do you want these people to fall apart during pressure?

Smilodon TestsRealistically, everyone faces situations when they get flustered and can’t cope from time to time.    There can be many reasons why a person has a stressful reaction, but it all comes down to brain chemistry.    We all have an amygdala, that little piece of our brain that we evolved to survive living alongside Smilodon… and our amygdala are responsible for governing our stress response.   Fight, flight, freeze and appease:  our innate defenses in times of life-threatening stress.

Unfortunately, the amygdala cannot differentiate between saber-toothed-tigers and math tests.

So here is what you can do before a (known) stressful event (e.g. your math test):

  • Overprepare.    While reviewing material is a good idea, if you are anxious about a test it can be useful to give yourself extra time to polish your skills (and build your confidence).
  • Give yourself triggers.  Memory is a funny thing.  Often we will unintentionally link stimulus with certain skills or memories.   You can do this with a scent, or a physical trigger like tapping your hand.  I had one student who literally had a thinking… thong.   He told us about it.   It was endearing, and a little awkward.
  • Reframe the event.  If you are the kind of person to work yourself up before a test, then see if you can change the context for yourself.   If the word “test” freaks you out, see if “quiz”, “assessment”, or “exercise” is better.
  • Take care of your body.    Mind and body are not separate, and abusing your body will play out in poorer brain function and more dramatic stress reactions.   Which means you should eat healthy, and sleep regularly.


Here is what you can do during your test:

  • Feel it, then act (not react).   There is nothing you can do to prevent a stress reaction once it has started.   But if you can recognize the fact and have a plan in place, you can think rather than just flail destructively.
  • BREATHE.   One thing that happens in all stress reactions is people will hold their breath, or breathe very shallowly.   So take a few deep, regular breaths.   It allows your body to relax and get past its stress reaction.
  • Affirm yourself.    Remind yourself there are no saber-tooth-tigers in the room.   Also tell yourself that you are going to ace the hell out of this test.   Tell yourself you are both too stubborn and sexy to fail.
  • Use your memory triggers.   Now is the time to chew that special gum, tap your hand, or remind yourself that you are wearing your thinking thong.


Whether we always recognize it or not, our brains are just like the rest of our bodies.   Tools that we can use to do what we want them to do.   But you will need to train them.    Just like it takes practice to learn how to run a marathon, it also takes practice to put ourselves in stressful (but necessary) situations.

And for my students who just survived your first test:   smile.   You were not killed by a mathematical Smilodon.

Live to study another day.