“Math teachers should be more like football coaches.”

As you probably know, John Urschel is both a professional mathematician (at MIT, no less) and a recently retired professional football player (in the NFL, of course — recently retired from the Baltimore Ravens). What a combination! A few days ago he published a piece in the New York Times that is well worth reading.

Here are three excerpts, followed by a couple of comments:

Football coaches can be easy to caricature: all that intensity, all those pep talks, all those promises to build character. I certainly don’t romanticize them. I don’t believe that they make better young men, just better football players.

But I wish math teachers were more like football coaches.

No one expects a math teacher to tell a talented student that he or she could become the next John von Neumann. (No one expects math teachers to tell students about von Neumann — perhaps the greatest mathematician of the 20th century — at all.) And no one expects math teachers to talk with the kind of fire, or to demand the kind of commitment and accountability, that football coaches do. But I wish they did.

I had no desire to spend my life doing exercises out of a textbook, which is what I assumed mathematicians did — if I even thought about what they did.

A mathematician

A math teacher

So, to give a little more context: Urschel went to a very academically oriented public high school in upstate New York (maybe a bit like Weston?), wanted to play pro football, went to Penn State, played for the Ravens, and is now getting his PhD in math at MIT. Quite a combination! My main comment concerns what math teachers do and what mathematicians do. Math teachers (obviously) teach math… but we’re not professional mathematicians, as I often remind my classes. We are both less and more. Less in the sense that we rarely do original research and rarely prove new and interesting theorems (two of the things that most pro mathematicians do). More in the sense that we strive to reach all students — even those who hate math and think it’s impossible — and we relate mathematics clearly to other disciplines. I’ve known too many mathematicians who were great at doing math but completely incompetent at teaching it to middle- or high-school students. Conversely, most math teachers couldn’t do professional mathematics, nor would we want to.

So go ahead and read the article. It’s short. Then you’ll decide whether Urschel is correct. I think he is.

Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning