Uplifting “Thank You Note” from an AP Calc Student

One day after this fall semester concluded, I shared on my personal Facebook account an email I received from one of my AP Calculus AB students along with commentary about my thoughts to leave teaching as my challenges this semester weighed heavily upon me.  Within hours, I received an outpouring of support encouraging me to remain a teacher, many comments coming from my USMA classmates who now teach.

I’m definitely going to finish the year out, and I likely will continue teaching.  However, I need to revisit my purpose for teaching, and perhaps how I actually teach as they may not be as aligned as needed.  I am wiped out teaching, semester after semester, and truthfully, day after day, without feeling a great sense of accomplishment or reward for doing so.

Sure, there is the fleeting sense of satisfaction provided by the occasional student letter, such as the one below.  However, my engineering roots leave me perpetually unsatisfied with my students’ outcomes.  Perhaps my dissatisfaction also originates in my idealistic tendencies, which I believe called me to teach.  Reality tends to dampen idealism if one’s expectations are too high.

Bottom line: I am out of balance and rapidly approaching terminal burn out.  I will not permit myself to reach the terminal state.  However, I am not quite sure what changes I need to make to arrest my rate of descent while maintaining what I believe is the necessary level of rigor and focus on developing my students abilities:

  • to think (beyond rote recall, and ideally, creatively),
  • to solve problems (beyond routine procedures, and ideally, abstractly), and
  • to understand as much of what they are asked to learn as possible (beyond a superficial level, and ideally, to a meaningful level).

I must figure this out this semester in order for me to continue in this field.


My Facebook Post

Received the following email from one of my AP Calculus students in response to one I sent him letting him know he attained the 2nd highest score on the final exam.

Note his reference to my unusual style as a teacher. I employ what I learned at West Point in the early 1980s. It goes by the name of The Thayer Method at USMA. Coupled with online videos today, it is called The Flipped Classroom. Whatever you call it, I believe it leads to true learning and understanding, especially in mathematics. I cannot express the depth of the emotional stress teaching this way has caused me, especially this semester as I teach a new honors precalculus course this way and the parents of nearly half my students have complained to the admins and to me that my method is the reason their child is not performing at the same level (spelled “A”) as they have in all prior math classes. One set of parents, in particular, was almost the straw that broke the camels back as I am considering leaving teaching.

This student’s note helps me as I reflect on the past semester and my future as a teacher.

Dear Mr Math Teacher

Wow that’s fantastic. Honestly I was not expecting to do so well but I guess all the studying payed off.

You know I came into this year having had terrible experiences in math classes and I was expecting to hate it just as much as usual. But calculus is actually one of my favorite classes now. It’s hard, yeah, but it’s a challenge, and it’s really interesting material that makes sense in the real world. I mean I can see a million uses for a derivative this year and I think I hated math last year because I didn’t know how a trig identity could help me live.

I’m really sorry that so many of your students don’t appreciate you as a teacher. You do have a very unusual style but it works if we’re devoted to it. I just want to let you know I really appreciate what you do for us. You are one of my favorite teachers that I’ve had in a long time and I’ve never enjoyed learning math more.

I hope you and the family and ‘the outlaws’ have a wonderful holiday break.

I replied to his email as follows.

Thank you for taking the time to write this note. Most students are unable to appreciate my methods until they are in college and beyond. Regardless of whether you pursue a technical field in college or not, my goal is to develop a student’s ability to think, to reason, to persist, and to succeed in whatever they attempt.

Enjoy your break. We hit it hard when we return to class!


Further Reflections

In one of my replies to a friend’s comment about the lack of emphasis on applications of mathematics in their learning, I stated the following.

With electrical engineering and finance degrees, I have applications galore for calculus. Unfortunately, in many cases I’ve experienced, the primary focus of students and parents alike is an “A” and everything else is a distant second. Trying to change that has caused me no amount of grief.

Teaching the upper level students in my school in my honors precalculus course, as opposed to those in my AP Calculus course, exposed me much more intensely to the tremendous pressures, felt by students and parents alike, for students to receive straight A’s on all of their coursework.  The perceived necessity to attain the impossible is especially high for honors or AP students as those courses permit even greater opportunities to distinguish oneself as a student of the highest academic potential.

From my perspective, it seems that the A grade is by far more important than any learning or skill developed in the course for most upper level students, much less understanding.  Worse, the A has become the expected grade.  Any deviation from an A grade, as indicated online, on an assignment by assignment basis no less, is cause for great alarm for most upper level students and their parents.

Furthermore, one would think that the two, grade and skill, are more than correlated.  Yet, it seems that that there is a tenuous connection between the two for a portion of students receiving A’s in their mathematics coursework; at least in the sense of succeeding in a subsequent course with minimal to no time in class devoted to prerequisite review.

Perhaps the decoupling of grade and skill is primarily due to the enormous pressures exerted by our educational system?  Specifically, does the scarcity of admissions offers from the most desired colleges and universities thrust students into a cutthroat trajectory?  Or, is the diversity of student abilities within a classroom coupled with increasing focus to close the achievement gap negatively impacting the development of true skill at the uppermost levels?

There are so many factors in play within such an immense system as public education that it is likely impossible to identify which are most apt to be managed for collectively desired outcomes.  Education is more idealism than realism in aspirations and more realism than idealism in outcomes.  How to balance idealism and realism confounds all today, at least in any widely applicable scale.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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12 Responses to Uplifting “Thank You Note” from an AP Calc Student

  1. Kathryn says:

    I, too,am feeling extremely ineffective in my classroom this year (after 15 years). I spend an enormous amount of time (on the weekends) designing activities and assignments that will have my students not only make connections but also allow for multiple entry points in order to meet my students needs. In my 8th grade math classes, I have a range of 3rd grade to 10th grade level of skills.
    I also agree students are only concerned with grades not with actually learning or understanding. Students really believe because they complete homework they should get at least a B. Personally, I would like to get rid of homework altogether.


    • In my experience with underprivileged students, I found homework to be counterproductive UNLESS they had strong support from home or some other place where they could spend quality time on it. The vast majority did not, however. For more privileged students, there is often too much homework assigned, of which I am guilty; however, I have found that students require practice to learn the material, especially AP Calculus. Unfortunately, students are simply are overloaded with AP and honors courses, extracurricular activities, and such; my 17 y.o. son included.


  2. Dave your senior ( experience and age only) says:

    Pressure to incorporate common core lessons and pedagogy has exacerbated these problems. I probably have no choice but to bifurcate instruction in some classes both for motivation and to provide appropriate learning opportunities. Regardless, this year is it for me in the classroom to preserve physical and mental stability. Lack of effectiveness is too frustrating. Also, I would be interested in a synopsis of the Thayer method and your “unusual” style.


  3. Dave your senior ( experience and age only) says:

    Checked them out; thanks. I see why you have your hands full. Requires student self confidence in themselves and one’s peers and also in the instructor. Many of our students fear success as much as they do failure. Fear of being unprepared among those who depend on you is a motivator at WP.

    Someday you’ll write detailing your experiences with this method in a urban population for publication in a prof journal. I’m sure some professor would be happy to collaborate if necessary.


  4. V John says:

    You may be interested in reading this post from a university professor about giving students easy A’s: https://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/we-create-a-problem-when-we-pass-the-incompetent/


  5. Pingback: Trapped in an Echo Chamber | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

  6. Pingback: When Life Gives You Lemons… | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

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