On Being a Statistics Educator and Loving It
I believe I was destined to become an educator. Coming from a family of educators (mother, father, stepfather, stepmother, aunt, great aunt, grandmother, and most likely others), teaching was a profession that was familiar and natural to me. In fact, I have written documentation dating from when I was in first grade indicating that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. I did not, however, go to college with the goal of becoming a teacher.
In high school, I was a self-described math/computer/science guy. In college, I studied science because I could combine all these interests and use the knowledge and skills I worked so hard to develop in high school. After college, I went to graduate school, again without the plan of becoming a teacher.
I eventually realized that teaching was what I wanted to do, so I took a job at a small independent school in the Washington, DC, area, teaching science and math. As the school started to grow and needed additional course offerings in the math department, I suggested someone (not necessarily me) begin teaching AP Statistics. At that point in my education, I had had little exposure to statistics, primarily only in science classes. Lacking a formal statistics course, I took an evening class and fell in love with the discipline. In fact, I enjoyed statistics so much that I left teaching for a few years to return to graduate school so I could earn my MS in statistics. I then worked in the corporate world for about one and one-half years. However, I missed being in the classroom, so I returned to teaching high school.
One great benefit of teaching statistics is that I get to combine all my academic passions—math, science, and computers. Teaching statistics is particularly exciting for me because I have the opportunity to continue learning about other disciplines through reading studies reported in both the popular press and research articles. I enjoy sharing and discussing the results of many of these studies with my students. I often ask them about their interpretation of the study results, sometimes including having them do analyses of available data, and what questions they would like to ask the researchers. I also am thrilled when my students bring me articles they have found and think I might be interested in reading.
Another exciting component of teaching statistics is using activities to engage students. Activities can bring a class alive in a way that traditional lecturing cannot. Students can remember the activities and tie the outcomes from the activities to the statistical content being studied at that point in the year.
In addition to content, a critically important lesson I teach my students is to be skeptical and question what they read or are told. They should learn to draw their conclusions based on the evidence presented in the form of data.
My greatest moments of satisfaction come when a student tells me she or he has learned a lot in my class, was challenged, and hopes to take more statistics courses in college.
Being a teacher has its challenges, as well. I take my role as an educator seriously, and it can be disheartening when students aren’t interested. In fact, when I do have students who don’t show much interest, I work even harder to engage and excite them. Last school year, I had a student who didn’t seem to care at all about the statistics class. He tried to sleep during class (I did not let him get away with that!) and didn’t put much effort into in-class activities, homework, reading, classroom discussions, or test preparation. At one point, however, we were discussing an article from CHANCE magazine about human rights issues and the role of statistical sampling (“Speaking Stats to Justice: Expert Testimony in a Guatemalan Human Rights Trial Based on Statistical Sampling,” Volume 24, Issue 3) and he seemed to come alive. The article genuinely interested him, and he was hooked! For the remainder of the year, he was active, engaged, and a frequent classroom discussant. This was a teaching moment I will not forget.
Being a high-school teacher is rewarding and personally satisfying. I take great pleasure in getting my students involved in not only studying statistics, but also actually doing statistics. I am excited for them when they succeed and when they take control of their learning. In addition, I enjoy the opportunity to combine my academic interests and, to paraphrase John Tukey, to play in everyone’s backyard.