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Should There Be a Mathematical Oath?

Good evening and welcome to today's chat with NCTM President Johnny Lott on whether there should be a professional oath for mathematics teachers.

Here is our first question, which is from Stone Mountain, Georgia:

When will the NCTM acknowledge excellent math teachers that are hidden in public schools?

Johnny Lott:
NCTM has always acknowledged good teachers in public schools, as well as in other schools. I'm not sure what prompted the question. I know that the majority of committee members for NCTM in the past two years were from public schools.

I started teaching at Lakeside and my wife started teaching at the old Stone Mountain High School. Only one year of my teaching pre-collegiate mathematics was in private school.

Question from:
Agoura Hills, California

Mr. Lott, I am a student doing a report on mathematics. I was wondering why you feel the need to have teachers say an oath. Is there a lack of commitment in teaching?

Johnny Lott:
I wrote the oath for several reasons. Among them are the following:
1. Sometimes prospective and current teachers get so tied up in the day-to-day routine of studies or classes that they forget the real reason for becoming a teacher, and that is a desire to aid students in learning mathematics.

2. The oath also includes some valid points that sometimes get lost in the workday, including the right to privacy of students and an honoring of their learning, and a continuing need for all to continue professional development regardless of how experienced that they are.

3. In addition, mathematics teachers are a special group of people; they have chosen a field that is not always held in the highest esteem by the public and the media; they are sometimes isolated in schools, especially rural ones where they have very few colleagues to discuss their subject matter on a professional level.

4. I'm not too sure that an oath of professionalism is a bad idea for all teachers to drive home a point that all teachers are embarking on a special mission when they enter education. It is not unlike oaths that other professionals take before entering law, medicine, and so on.

Finally, you asked about whether I feel that there is a lack of commitment requiring the oath. The answer is definitely no to the lack of commitment on the part of mathematics teachers. What other field of study and teaching takes the ongoing criticism that mathematics teachers hear and read? There may be a lack of commitment but the lack of commitment is typically from people outside of mathematics toward the teachers of mathematics, the professionals who work with and for children.

Question from:
Cedar Falls, Iowa

I support the idea of a Math Teacher's Oath. Although it is a bit disheartening to note that we have had to become so public relations-conscious, it is probably the kind of thing we must do to become proactive (rather than reactive) in making our case for good math instruction. The last two sentences of the draft are a bit politically tinged, but perhaps it has to be so.

Thanks, Johnny, for your assertive leadership in these challenging times. And thanks for keeping the Principals and Standards online!

Johnny Lott:
Thank you for the comment. I personally believe that such an oath could be beneficial to math teachers everywhere. It talks about what we do and what we believe in. I will talk about it at my session in Philadelphia next week.

Keeping Principles and Standards online was an attempt by the Board of Directors to meet the needs of students who are becoming prospective teachers. The response from them has been positive, so thank you for the comment.

Question from:
Los Angeles, California

NOW is the time for NCTM to revise its policy on teaching measurement. Actually it is long past time. The new policy should read: Teach only the metric system from Grade 1. There is no end use for the inch-pound system in this era when all science and math use only the metric system. Teaching two systems only serves to confuse students (and many teachers) and wastes valuable education time and money teaching an archaic system of measurement.

Johnny Lott:
NCTM has a strong policy on the metric system. The position paper was once drafted much stronger, but because of the lack of a government move to change the entire measurement system of the country to the metric system, the position was made more realistic in today's world in the United States.

In the 70s we seemed to be making a strong move to metrics. That stopped when the National Metric Board was not reappointed. While most of our Canadian members strongly support your position, as a Council of both countries, we have not felt that could be done. It is the case that we are one of the few, very few, industrial countries in the world still using the more traditional English system, our government has not completed the legal requirements to switch.

I believe that it is the case that in the Bureau of Standards, our current system units may be defined in terms of metric measures. If you read the labels on food products, you will typically find both systems. It is an interesting world in which we live in this country with the dual measures. "Interesting" here does not necessarily mean good in my opinion.

Question from:
Stone Mountain, Georgia

Why do school systems allow people who are not "math lovers" to manage their math system?

Johnny Lott:
There are possibly different reasons for this. Most likely the reason is because of the people who choose to move into administration. It seems (and I have no statistics to back this up) that teachers to truly love their subjects choose not to go into administration but opt to remain in the classroom with students.

We received some questions submitted in advance for this chat that did not apply to the topic. We'll now address those questions.

Question from:
Cincinnati, Ohio

I have been teaching geometry for 3 years and have not been able to fully explain when degree units was introduced to Euclid's elements. Euclid stated that a triangle sum is equal to two right angles, but we teach a triangle sum is 180. Which mathematician made this connection and why?

Johnny Lott:
You have asked a question that as a teacher of mathematics history on occasion, I feel I should be able to answer, but I'm struggling. Here is something that may or may not help.

Euclid worked around roughly 300 B.C. Ptolemy seems to have been one of the early astronomers who adapted the use of degree from maybe earlier works, possibly of Hipparchus who lived somewhere between 180 to 125 B.C. This work by Ptolemy was labeled the Almagest along the way. The symbols for degrees and angles came much after Euclid. Herigone in about 1634 seems to have adopted an angle symbol, and it was only in 1923 that the Mathematical Association of America adopted the symbol that we use today. This isn't exactly an answer to your question but it is the best I can do right now.

Question from:
Gainesville, Florida

Help! I'm teaching 8th grade math (basic skills), and my students are failing every subject. I want a new curriculum for these students. How can I teach surface area of cylinders when these kids are having trouble with basic skills?

Johnny Lott:
Help might or might not be on the way. First, while teaching students about the area of cylinders may computationally depend on basic multiplication skills, the concepts are different enough that you might be able to think about how the two are tied together. Consider instead of cylinders, rectangular prisms. I realize that using grid paper may seem like very young children's work, but they may actually help with your chore here. Starting with a rectangular prism with measurements 6 x 3 x 5. Consider what the prism would look like opened up. There are two rectangles each of size 6x3, 6x5, and 3x5. Using the grid paper, cut our appropriate sized nets; review the multiplication facts to find the areas of the parts and then combine. This is not a formula approach, but may help in the steps to a cylinder.

The space is too short to develop a series of lessons here but I think that you might be able to work both the basic skills and the surface area problems together. It may take more time than you had planned, but it could serve two purposes.

You could also work on the needed review while using technology to help move you in the direction that your curriculum seems to be taking you.

Good luck in thinking about this one.

Question from:
Lafayette, Louisiana

How long does a person have to go to college to be a teacher?

Johnny Lott:
An easy answer here is four years, but that might or might not be true depending on where you live and go to college.

Traditionally, a college student should be able to finish a discipline major and the requirements for teacher certification in a four-year period. That was the model for many, many years. Long before that a person could become a teacher with either one or two years of college work. My 94-year old mother-in-law was prepared to teach after one year of college. She opted to get married instead, and married women could not teach in that age.

Both my wife and I became certified in English and math respectively in four years.

Times changed again. Some states required a four-year degree in a field and then an extra year to prepare for teaching, which made it a five-year program.

Additional state requirements for individual state histories for example have increased certification requirements. I believe that the answer to your question is either four or five years for the initial certification, but the real answer is that a teacher who stays current in the field really never stops learning, and most do not stop taking collegiate courses. It is a necessity to stay prepared with the constantly changing curriculum. This is not a bad thing; it is a good thing because it demonstrates that the teaching field continues to mirror the world around us.

That concludes our online chat with NCTM President Johnny Lott. Our thanks to all of you who participated or submitted questions in advance.

Because this is Johnny's last chat as president I want to extend a special thanks to him for all the time he's taken and his willingness and diligence in hosting these chats and answering questions on almost any topic over the past year. Incoming President Cathy Seeley intends to continue the monthly chats. Watch the NCTM home page for announcements of future online chats.

Johnny Lott:
Thanks to all of you who participated in not only this chat, but the "chat experience" this year. We started the chats as a method for the public to talk with the NCTM President, and we think that this has been a good experiment. The questions have been challenging; they have certainly made me think and made me realize exactly what some of the questions to mathematics teachers both inside and outside the field are.

As we close this chat and my presidency of NCTM in Philadelphia next week, let me invite you to come there and enjoy approximately 1,000 sessions of mathematics professional development, and let me wish you well in the rest of your school year.

Editor's Note: NCTM moderators retain editorial control over online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts. The moderator and host may decline to answer questions.


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