3 Clues to find great maths teachers

As parents, you want to look for the best teachers for your child. While you cannot choose the teachers your child is assigned to in school, you do have plenty of choices and decision making to do when hiring tutors.

Most tutors in Singapore are well-qualified. How do you choose the best tutor for your child among so many well-qualified tutors? Here I’ll share some clues which might just point you to the right tutor.

CLUE #1: Zeal that is unconcealable


Growing up, I was lucky to have met a few great teachers who taught me maths. How did I know that they were great? Because they taught with so much zeal and brought maths to live.

I have had teachers who knew their formulas and the syllabus. They taught as best as they could. They were patient and polite. While they are all professional, they don’t inspire.

I knew that I could go to them to get the help to understand how to solve a particular question. But talking to them does not make me want to learn more about maths.

They didn’t come across to me that they were fascinated about maths. So from them, I learnt that solving maths problems are tasks to be performed, not challenges to be overcome. Solving maths problems are more like filing income tax returns than solving a puzzle.

Great teachers I have met, on the other hand, talked about maths like how the late Steve Irwin talked about wild animals, or how Jamie Oliver talked about food, or how Richard Feynman talked about Physics. Their energies are infectious. Listening to these great maths teacher’s lessons are like listening to detective stories. It was always exciting.

In case you’re wondering what do these great maths teachers look like, check out the teaching videos of Sal Khan and Eddie Woo on YouTube.

Clue #2: emphasise students’ reasoning more than calculations


There is another common trait I remembered about these great maths teachers. They were, surprisingly, not very concerned about the mistakes I made. If it was a calculation error, or careless mistake, they would just say, “Be careful next time.” but not make a big fuss about how I would lose marks over careless mistake, blah blah.

When I explained to them my solutions, they were more concerned about whether my reasoning made sense and whether I showed that I used my mind to think first. It was as if they knew that to my human brain, calculation errors are forgivable, but not applying reasons and logic are not.

These great teachers did not even know one another. Yet the message they sent to me was consistent: maths is not some boring stuff. There is order and harmony in maths. Look long enough, and I will find breathtaking beauty in it.

Clue #3: maths must make perfect sense

PHOTO: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/09/11/richard-feynman-lectures-on-physics/

Finally, all the great maths teachers I knew are not really interested to impart those so-called exam techniques and tips.

Don’t get me wrong, they have plenty of such tricks and tips up their sleeves from years of teaching. But somehow they don’t focus on these. They are focused on teaching the mathematical idea and the principles right.

They often busied themselves with proofs, while other teachers would skip the proofs in maths textbooks and go right to the application, because most people are interested in getting the right answers only.

It’s as if they wanted to convince me that nothing in maths is just a formula. That we do this or that because some mathematicians said so. They wanted to drum into their students’ heads that maths makes sense. Perfect sense. And they should never accept anything that does not make perfect sense to them.

So, invariably, the most common questions asked by these great teachers are:

“Does this make any sense to you?”

And that is the most question I ask my students nowadays too.

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