You Get To Fire A Math Teacher

A little sadism for your Sunday. Benjamin Baxter puts forward two math teachers:

  1. The competent geometry teacher who knows not much more than first-semester calculus, one who has quite a lot of charisma.
  2. The resident whiz who knows his math stuff – whatever that entails – but lacks so much charisma. Think Steven Hawking.

And says, for budgetary reasons, you’ve gotta fire one of them. Any thoughts, toss ’em his way.

For my part, I think it’s obvious. You fire the shorter teacher. Always.

[Update: My response to this somewhat absurd hypothetical will come as a surprise to no one.]

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. haha, your response? i figured as much, only because you’re type a. i consider myself type a, but have been schooled in the school of b, so I’d have a hard time firing anyone.

  2. In our district seniority is the deciding factor. Unfortunately, this isn’t always best for the students.

  3. Strictly speaking of K12 teachers, of course you dump the way-advanced-but-boring teacher. Rumor has it he’s 5’2″, *grin*.

    The charismatic teacher will reach more students with more information than the crazy-knowledgeable dude.

    It’s (ironically) about the numbers: if teacher 1 throws 50% less material at the kids than teacher 2, but 50% more sticks when taught by teacher 1 than teacher 2. You’re left with the same amount of math knowledge in the kiddies’ heads but the kids taught by teacher 1 are far happier about it.

  4. Both of these seem equally worth firing, meaning neither really has – as described in the bio – the grist of what it takes to be a good teacher. (At least from what I’ve gathered on this blog.) Being a great teacher isn’t about genius or charisma, but the ability to adapt well and always be on the move. “Charisma” might be getting after that, but pure charisma can also be a dog and pony show, disguising an inability to teach. What I’m saying is that neither of the characteristics presented indicate which teacher is valuable and which isn’t. In my pessimistic world, I’d have them both fired.

    However, if one of them is Latvian, then we got ourselves a pretty clear winner.

  5. I think that teaching goes way beyond the knowledge of subject matter. Teaching is a gift in and of itself. If you can teach, being a genius is secondary. But geniuses who don’t have the gift of being able to reach students are worthless as teachers.

    I’ll always pick the person who knows less but really connects with students over a genius who only connects with him/herself.

  6. The one who connects with the students should be the one who is there. So the one with charisma and just first semester calculus. For the majority of math students, the connection with the teacher will impact on how much they want to learn, so that is important.

  7. Thanks for the link.

    @ Mike: The teachers are identical in every other respect, so whatever ability they have to adapt well and be on the move is identical.

    In a sense, this question boils down to The First and Second Universal Laws taught in our credential program: Thou shalt endeavour to teach, and Thou shalt not endeavour to be a friend in so far as doing so conflicts with the first law.

  8. Q: Who do you fire?
    A: I don’t fire anybody, because principals are not really endowed with the authority to fire anybody.

    Q: Who does the D.O. fire?
    A: Nobody. If there’s a budget crunch, the central office will cut the number of paraprofessionals working in SpEd and ELL classrooms, cut the sports budget, and disallow field trips.

    Q: Who does the D.O. fire the year after they cut paras, sports and field trips and still need to get in the black?
    A: They fire Dan, because the other two have tenure, and any individual merits are therefore besides the point. As teachers, we have created, to our shame, the working conditions where a question like this, which seems so very reasonable on its face, is laughably illogical and disconnected to the realities of the job.

  9. If teacher 1 throws 50% less material at the kids than teacher 2, but 50% more sticks when taught by teacher 1 than teacher 2, you’re left with the same amount of math knowledge in the kiddies’ heads.

    I can’t believe you posted that in a math teaching blog!

  10. Mr. K: Wow, that’s embarrassing. A math mistake on a math teaching blog. Mea culpa. Thanks for spotting it!

    The important part is that I think the better K12 teacher is “competent” (as stated in the original case) and charismatic. I’d take teacher 1 over teacher 2 any day.

  11. Hearing the word charisma, immediately makes me think of Jim Collin’s description of Level 5 leadership. While Collins’ work focuses on business, I see many similarities to education. He points out that the best leaders are not necessarily charismatic; often challenging our traditional schema.

    Anyway, not much help on the issue at hand but hopefully contributing to the conversation.

  12. But as a math teacher isn’t expertise in “teaching math” more important than expertise in “math?” In particular, for example, it isn’t important that a math teacher can pass second year calculus, but it is important that you truly understand what’s going on when you divide fractions. A math teacher who doesn’t have very good math chops is one who does not understand and cannot explain, for example, the division of fractions.

    I think it is easier to teach the math and math education content to a teacher than it is to teach the personal and emotional skills.

    But ultimately, have you ever actually had to deal with deciding who to fire in a school? Once you’ve actually been through it, seniority doesn’t sound like such a bad system.

  13. A little sadistic question. I mean, you “get to” fire a teacher? You make it sound like a “you get to choose a free vacation to Bermuda or Aruba” type question. These are peoples lives, careers, etc at stake. So it should be worded as, “forced to lay off a math teacher”.
    I know, I know, I am taking this blog entry too seriously, but that point had to have been made. I would choose to let go the teacher that had the lower amount of seniority.

  14. Depends on what classes he/she is supposed to teach and the reason why teacher 1 know so little. Is the reason he stopped at 1st semester calculus because he scraped by and managed a C- or did he do fine with a good A and never had the time to keep going?

    A weak 1st semester calculus student can NEVER be a good teacher for anyone at math. I might change my mind the day a see a weak calculus student who really understands fractions and functions. If the teacher don’t understand what and why they can just teach how to do stuff but never teach real thinking and that is the real point even with geometry classes.

    If you really understand calculus you can be a good teacher at least up to precalc in my opinion.

    Steven Hawking would be a disaster in most classes but with the right motivated group of student he would be a dream, a teacher who gets the students ideas, can see what works and what need trimming. But for most classes I prefer someone who have decent charisma and fair understanding.

    So I would 1st fire the teacher who just barely took 1st semester calc (how did he get to teach to begin with?), the I would fire the super nerdy math wiz that I only could use I a few special groups or as a resource for other teachers. I would keep the teacher who really understand calculus that works well in the lower level classes but I would force him/her to keep taking more university math classes before giving him/her a steady position.

    /Per (giving you the Swedish perspective)

  15. @ Tom McHoff:

    The first teacher is competent, remember. He just isn’t stellar-math-whiz-second-coming-of-Euler competent.

    @ Morty McNutt:

    That’s exactly what it is. In my minds’ ear, I say “get to” sarcastically, if that’s any consolation.

    @ Per McSwede:

    You’d be surprised. There are plenty of math teachers who understand not much more than the subject they’re teaching at the moment. That goes for all subjects, really. As Dan said, don’t use it and you lose it.

    @ All McAll:

    Be sure to check out the full discussion over at the original post, too.