You Get to Fire a Math Teacher

A recent discussion on this post brought up an interesting hypothetical thought, expanded as follows.
There are two math teachers. Due to budgetary restraints and a surprisingly crowded and eager math department in your average urban public high school, you need to fire one of these newbie teachers.

a. The competent geometry teacher who knows not much more than first-semester calculus, one who has quite a lot of charisma.

b. The resident whiz who knows his math stuff — whatever that entails — but lacks so much charisma. Think Steven Hawking.

Ideally, of course, you want a teacher with the both good qualities and neither caveat. Unfortunately, gene splicing our clones is still morally reprehensible.

For another game, switch out “charisma” for “verbal acuity” or “math” for “a subject area lacking a teacher shortage.”

You have absolute control over the fates of these young people. Scratch that — you have absolute control over the fates of these young gentlemen.

To complicate the issue, in staff meeting behavior and non-pedagogical usefulness they are identical, including the wideness of their smile at the perpetually frustrated secretary who really can’t be bothered right now. If ever in the same room, they’ll say exactly the same thing at exactly the same time, discounting intonation, delivery and personality. It’s starting to annoy the department chair.

Hypothetically, who would you fire?

Oh, and don’t worry; they’re math teachers. Their equally qualified selves will get hired somewhere else.

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  1. A colleage of mine at a different school has essentially the same situation. To leave things anonymous, let me set up a thought experiment with a different department:

    a.) An American History teacher who the students love and is dripping charisma, but skips teaching anything between the years 1860-1904.

    b.) An American History teacher who gets through all the material, but has a personality which fosters student hatred.

  2. Due less to my personal skills and traits and more to the placements usually offered a new teacher, I have fallen squarely into rank a.

    I mean, I can teach through calculus but it’s a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. I haven’t used those skills in years while at the same time, while working down at the shallow end of the pool, for survival’s sake, I’ve had to develop a fun, engaging personality.

    This question cracked me up a bit because, though few math teachers blog, those few send me occasional frosty glances. They teach the high-end stuff and get annoyed when I gloss over some thirty-minute proof at the expense keeping my kids engaged.

    They’d chose the knowledgeable teacher, doing functional, boring work at high levels.

    I’m gonna choose the charismatic rook, not for any of my previously and obviously stated biases, but because the dude/tte is just rarer. Anecdotally, you don’t find many people who can make the intro-level subjects — taught to classes that are less homogeneous than the advanced placement track, taught to kids often predisposed against those subjects after years enduring teachers from rank b — fun.

  3. I’ve gotta go with “a” for the reasons Dan mentioned. I honestly think it is more difficult to teach the “average” algebra and/or geometry class than it is to teach the advanced honors classes. Disclaimer: I’ve never actually taught an honors class, but I’ve been a math team coach for going on four years.

  4. I think it fully depends on the context. Some populations require charisma to make things go. Some populations would be better off with the dry whiz because it’s what they are used to and they can work well with that personality. The goal isn’t to pick the teacher students will like better — it’s to pick the one that will be most effective. I think there are different right answers for different schools. Is that a cop out?

  5. I’ll love to prod with specifics (who has given frosty looks, and when) but I’ll just ask: which 30-minute proof(s)?

    The longest proof I’ve done with my students this year was why you have to divide by 4 to get the focus of a parabola. And that was because they requested it. It took 5 minutes.

    I’d nearly always go for the charisma, although in my previous “hypothetical” situation it regards a teacher who skips an entire three chapters which are part of the curriculum (because he or she “doesn’t like them”). That makes the choice trickier.

  6. I’d keep A. Probably.

    My gut instinct is that those kids will learn more, even if it’s not as perfect.

    On the other hand, I’ve inherited a number of kids from personable teachers who just got the facts plain wrong, and the kids had to be retaught. That sucked.

    I refuse to guess which category I’m closer to.

  7. @ Jason: I’ll change your scenario so that it doesn’t skip the Civil War. If the teacher skips the Civil War, well, that teacher has no idea what they’re doing.

    Reconstruction and the Gilded Age aren’t that important compared to, say, World War I, women’s suffrage and the Roosevelt/Taft years. It’s alright if she skips some of it, if she has a good reason.

    “I don’t like it” isn’t a good reason for most administrators. If it’s part of the curriculum, and the administration is very top-down about that kind of thing and will enforce it, she isn’t a good fit in this department.

  8. Kate

    Just a few erratic points to add:

    These gentlemen could be equally effective, depending on the classes they are teaching.

    Why can’t we fire the 22-year, 8 to 3 wonder who wears jeans every day with a pedagogy that can best be described as “death by worksheet”?

    Dan’s “use it or lose it” is a good point. I am a former computer engineer repurposed as a math teacher. At one time I was pretty handy up through differential equations, but a new honors precalc course this year has thrown me for a loop several times. (DeMoivre’s Theorem? Schnikies.)

    Is teacher A’s limitations a problem for some reason? Certifications don’t normally require us to be able to teach past Calc 1, anyway. If you need him to teach past geometry, a competent professional will figure it out, though he might need a year to get his stuff together (see previous paragraph).

    Lower level, heterogeneous classes are DEFINITELY harder to teach effectively than honors classes.

  9. Any question that starts off with “Why can’t we fire” is usually answered by, “The Union.”

  10. I’d keep teacher A and let someone else teach the AP Calc classes. LOL at Dan’s “shallow end of the pool” remark. Is that the gene pool that you’re referring to?

  11. I have to agree with the people who say the context makes a difference here. The teacher who allows the students to learn the most is the best one to keep, and that is (in my opinion/experience) probably going to be teacher a), but if the limitations to their knowledge mean they are not able to fulfill the job requirements then it changes things. If they know all they need to teach then definitiely keep the one the students respond to.

  12. As other have noted, context will play into this a great deal in the “real world.”

    I’ve been in this spot before, though, and I’ve had to unload Teacher B. The average high school kid just doesn’t relate to Teacher B. And if the kids don’t relate they’re not going to learn regardless of how many advanced degrees he has.

    As Dan and others can attest, if you lack the relationship piece you’re behind from the start.

    Hire for attitude, train for skill.

  13. Stacy

    I would have to say that I would keep teacher A and offer them some type of support to enhance their teaching skills. I have had teacher B before and I always ended up tuning them out.

  14. I think with the teaching business, people skills go farther that actual subject knowledge. So the Steven Hawking guy would be on the chopping block.

  1. 1 dy/dan » Blog Archive » You Get To Fire A Math Teacher

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