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Want to Be a Better Teacher? Fail a Class

Ben Orlin, a high school math teacher in Oakland, Calif., has advice for fellow math teachers trying to reach their struggling students: Experience math failure for yourselves.

In an opinion piece for Slate, Orlin says he entered college well-prepared and was used to earning high scores on exams. In his senior year topology class, however, he found himself taking "dutiful notes" but feeling a "sense of vagueness" and "hazy half-comprehension."

He knew he was lost, but Orlin never asked for his professor's help out of fear of "looking stupid," and instead slid through the class by leaning on friends. Desperate, he finally scheduled a meeting with his professor late in the semester to help him merely "survive" the remainder of the course.

Orlin, however, says he is now grateful for the experience, because it has helped him identify the same symptoms in his students that he manifested, such as anxiety about failing, copying homework from friends, half-comprehension, shyness about asking for the teacher's help, and "feeling incurably stupid." And though he believes a cause of the disinterest in some of his failing students may be sloth or out-of-school distractions, he writes that feeling stupid is definitely a "more powerful and underlying cause."

Orlin ends the piece with the realization that his struggles with topology didn't mean he was stupid, just that he was bad at topology:

That's a difference worth remembering, whether you're a math prodigy, a struggling student, or a teacher holding your students' sense of self-worth in the palm of your hand. ... Just as therapists must undergo therapy as part of their training, no math teacher ought to set foot near human students until they've felt the sting of mathematical failure.
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