Tomorrow, we have our final classes of the year in IdeaMath, a weekend contest math program run by former US International Math Olympiad team coach Zuming Feng that I’ve been teaching at for the last five years. It’s always tough to say goodbye, having spent over a dozen Saturday afternoons with these middle and high school students, helping to teach them problem solving skills and having some fun along the way.
I’m not yet sure whether I’ll be returning to the program in the fall during my last year of grad school here, so this could be my last regular teaching opportunity in grad school, or possibly ever. I joined IdeaMath in my first year partly as a way to give back to the math contest community that I grew up in, and partly as a way to keep up my involvement with teaching while in a graduate program with a light teaching load.
My teaching experiences at MIT were also very positive — in fact, between the teaching I’ve done online with the Art of Problem Solving, Caltech, and MIT, I’ve somehow managed to help teach five different calculus classes. Some were aimed at the strongest students, and some at the weakest (albeit the weakest Caltech and MIT students). Some attempted to be fully rigorous, while others simply provided an upgraded version of Calculus BC. All were very rewarding personally, as I got to see students grasp the material for their first time.
Given my experiences and passion for teaching, I’ve often been asked if teaching is a career I’d consider. The question makes sense; I like to teach. I enjoy being able to inspire another generation of students with neat tricks, clever ideas, and powerful results. Even more than inspiring, I enjoy bringing clarity, helping students better grasp important concepts and form appropriate intuitions around them.
That passion and experience has made me into quite a proficient teacher, if I do say so myself. The MIT Math department administrator was quite impressed with my teaching ratings from students at MIT and my senior year at Caltech, I received a teaching prize meant for graduate students for my TA work there. In a surreal turn of events, one day the Caltech math department head called me into his office, wondering if he could pay me to essentially rescue a statistics class that had gone awry from poor teaching by holding a bunch of recitations and office hours. (I turned him down since I was too busy at that point, and suggested that he make the same offer to a few of the TAs instead.) Given my false starts with various research projects in grad school, it seems pretty clear that I’m generally better at teaching than research.
And yet, despite this passion, experience and success, I actually don’t see myself continuing to teach full-time or long-term. Why not?
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