(im)possible

I was talking to one of my daughters today and remembered two experiences from my life as a young student:

1) In sixth grade the math teacher asked the class  for a show of hands indicating who was interested in math field day.  I raised my hand.  He looked square at me and said something like “You’ll never make it very far in the competition.  Don’t try.”  I didn’t, until much later.  During my junior or senior year in high school I finally participated and advanced to the regional competition.  I bombed there in spectacular fashion, but I went on to earn two math degrees and work for 17 years as a college math instructor.

2) In high school I wanted to skip a particular introductory class.  I had owned a computer for  few years and could already do everything we were doing in the introductory class.  The teacher would not allow it so I decided not to take her classes.  She commented in a not-so-nice tone that unless I had her classes, I would never pass college.  I did pass college (3 times) and earned a minor in Computer Science with one degree.  Now I am an Associate Professor.

I do not recall either incident inspiring some deep rooted resolve to prove these teachers wrong, but I am glad I did in the end. I am sure they have no idea and probably don’t even remember these incidents, but I get some self-satisfaction out of the path I have taken.  Something curious to me is that not only did I go on to have life experiences that proved these two instances wrong, my main line of research has focused on learner motivation issues and some on feedback to students.  Is that a total coincidence, or was something planted in me as early as the 6th grade?

What about other students?  I was lucky to take a path that lead me past these comments. I’ll bet many other students didn’t have my luck.  Teachers, choose your words carefully.

I told my daughter that in life you need to do this sometimes, and that as a girl/woman, she’ll need to do it even more often — prove “them”, whoever “them” might be, wrong.

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