Taking the Sting Out of Math Title Typography
with Steve Demme
Secret Sauce
Do you ever wonder what classroom teachers learn in college to prepare them for being a professional math teacher? Is there special information that is passed on which equips them to present math well? Is there a secret sauce that transforms a well-meaning student into an effective educator?

I used to wonder about this myself because I didn’t take any education classes when I was in college, but then a few years later I found myself teaching math in a public high school. I hope that my story, and what I learned as I navigated the education system, will be both enlightening and encouraging to you.

In college, I was hoping to graduate with a double major in business and math. However, God had other plans. The summer between my junior and senior years, I recommitted my life to Christ and wanted to follow Jesus fully and prepare for a life of Christian ministry. I returned to school, dropped my math classes, took a bunch of religion classes, and headed to seminary.

After graduating from seminary I married Sandi. We found ourselves headed south to serve at a small church in Georgia. I was the assistant to the pastor and was encouraged to find a part-time job in addition to my church responsibilities. A church member who had been a teacher in the local school system was convinced that I should be a teacher and marched me into the superintendent’s office where I filled out an application.

Within days I was called to substitute teach, and after subbing six times out of the next ten days, I received a call from the county office on Sunday night. “Would you consider teaching math full time, beginning Monday morning?” After prayer and counsel, I said yes.

Since I did not have any education classes, nor even a full math degree, I was required to take four math classes at our local university and then complete one education class per semester each year that I taught to be provisionally certified.

I proceeded to teach for the remainder of that year and the next two full years and during this brief tenure I received two awards: Teacher of the Year and Star Teacher.

Between the classes I was taking and my experiences as a classroom teacher, I began to discover that there was no secret sauce.

My first revelation came when I was asked by a publishing company to attend a teacher’s convention and lead a seminar on how to use their curriculum. I was addressing a room full of geometry and algebra teachers and asked, “When did you really understand geometry?” Their response surprised me. “After I taught it for two or three years!”

On another occasion I was asked to teach a college class called Methods of Teaching Math. I had begun to use manipulatives in my teaching and tutoring and a friend at this particular college asked me to pass on what I had learned in summer school for experienced teachers. Oh, by the way, I have never taken this class. 🙂

“Discover what your children know, begin there, give them the time and space to master what they are learning.”
Another class I did not take in college was called Curriculum and Development. In hindsight, I am grateful I did not complete this course since it may have impacted how I designed Math-U-See. Instead of following what was the norm in US schools, I was free to arrange the topics in an orderly and logical progression.

During these years, I was asked to speak at other teacher conventions and to lead in-service training days for schools. One day I was presenting to a room full of classroom teachers and one of the teachers began to cry. My first thought was, “What have I done?” During the next break I gently approached her and asked what was wrong. She replied, “You are showing me how to teach algebra with manipulatives, but I had an awful experience when I was a student in algebra. The reason I am now teaching second grade is that is all the math I can do.”

I also learned some important lessons when I was teaching geometry to tenth through twelfth graders. I soon discovered that it was not the geometry that was difficult, it was the fact that the struggling students had a poor foundation coming into the class. Many still did not know their multiplication facts and had a limited understanding of fractions. I wanted to pause the class and reteach the basics, but then I would not have had time to fulfill my responsibility to teach geometry!

Very few of the students understood the concepts of math. This is pretty common in America, as rules and formulas are more important than concepts. When I was in school I was not encouraged to understand math but simply follow the algorithms and examples to find the correct answer.

Now that I have the reputation for being a math guy, my neighbors ask me to help their kiddos who are in our local schools. I am saddened and surprised how difficult modern textbooks make math. Math is not that tough, but we have a tendency to complicate it. Let me run through an overview of math.

There are four levels:
Level 1: Counting from 0–9.

Level 2: Adding—which is fast counting. I could solve 2+3 by counting, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. But adding is fast counting, as I learn that 2+3 is 5. Subtraction is the opposite, or inverse, of addition and also in level 2.

Level 3: Multiplying—which is fast adding of the same number. I could count 3+3+3+3 which would be 3 plus 3 is 6, plus 3 is 9, plus 3 is 12. Or I can learn my multiplication facts and know that 3 counted 4 times, or 3×4 is 12. Division is the inverse of multiplication.

Level 4: Exponents or powers. A quick review of what we have done so far: fast counting is adding, fast adding of the same number is multiplying, thus logically the next level is fast multiplying of the same number, or exponents and powers. 2x2x2x2 can be solved using multiplication as 2 times 2 is 4, times 2 is 8, times 2 is 16. Or I can learn that 24 is 16. The inverse of exponents is roots.

As you may have discerned, I am still not certified but have done fine. My advice for parents is to discover what your children know, begin there, give them the time and space to master what they are learning. Pray, take a deep breath, and learn along with them. I believe you know more than you think you know. There is no secret sauce but there is a wonderfully creative and ever-present God who will help and bless your schooling.
Find tips and concepts that will help your math experience at: DemmeLearning.com
Steve Demme

teve Demme and his wife Sandra have been married since 1979. They have been blessed with four sons, three lovely daughters-in-law, and six special grandchildren. Their fourth son has Downs Syndrome and lives with them in Lititz, PA. Steve has served in full or part-time pastoral ministry for many years after graduating from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the creator of Math-U-See and the founder of Building Faith Families.