Thoughts on my high school calculus cult

It’s the end of my first week of orientation for my stay in Indonesia, which actually was only three days long. Three days, however, was quite long enough. Right now, I need some time to process things.

For obvious reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching, since that’s what I’m going to be doing in Indonesia. And as I found out this week, I’ll apparently be teaching classes ranging from five to ninety students whose English levels will range from very good to not being able to say hello. Now perhaps you see why I’m a little concerned.

In the past, my teaching experience has really only involved two types of teaching: demonstrations and outreach-type things at my local science museum and ballet classes. Neither of these are quite the same, though they’re both relevant in some ways and I’m very glad for the experiences.

Right now, though, I’m turning more toward thinking about some of my high school teachers. When I told one of my good friends that I was going to Indonesia to teach English, he immediately said I should adopt a teaching style similar to that of my AP calc teacher. Those of you who took the class know what I’m talking about, and I’ll try to explain it for the rest of you, though I might fail. That class is hard to understand unless you experienced it.

The first day, the teacher came in and basically said this: “This class is going to be hell, but in the end, if you do everything that I tell you to do, you will be amazing at calculus.” He also said that he was more than willing to use our grades to manipulate us. He then explained to us the system under which we’d operate: if we did all the checkmark tasks that he assigned, we would get to pick our grade at the end of the year.

At first glance, that probably sounds easier than it actually was. I unquestionably put more effort into that class than any other in high school. I stayed up late doing homework, I stayed after school doing more homework, I memorized pages of equations, I corrected every test to 100% (which is hard when you’re scoring about 36% the first time around), and I cried. It was terrible. And, at the same time, it was amazing. I got good at calculus, I bonded with my classmates, and (though I didn’t know it at the time) I learned how to study in college.

Looking back on it, this class succeeded largely because of the persona that my teacher created. He managed to be simultaneously motivating, terrifying, cynical, harsh, and encouraging. And somehow it worked. We got out work done and we learned calculus.

That’s something I wish I could pull off. I can’t, of course, because teaching English is different than teaching math and because I probably don’t have very good aim with a brick. (There were also bricks involved in that class. And polar bears. Like I said, it’s hard to explain to outsiders.) Nevertheless, I’ll probably be thinking about that class for a while longer.

Next time: reflections on my high school classes. And possibly my high school English classes as well.


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