Too Hot For USC

I was profiled for USC’s Master of Arts in Teaching program last month. The interview covered my (short) professional bio, advice for new teachers, along with a question asking me how awesome I thought my own master’s program was. I’m pretty sure they canned my interview off my qualified response to that last question but there were elements of the interview I liked (and haven’t ever discussed at this blog, like my lifelong struggle with Restless Leg Syndrome) so I am posting it here.

USC: What and where do you teach?

DM: I teach high school math – a mix of Algebra, Geometry, and remedial math. I teach math to a lot of students who don’t enjoy math.

USC: How long have you been teaching?

DM: I just finished my fifth year. The fifth year is much more fun than the first. There isn’t any comparison, really.

USC: What inspired you to teach?

DM: I never wanted to teach. Now I’m a third-generation fourth-generation teacher. [Mom informs me my great-grandfather taught in a one-room schoolhouse. –dm] Both from a spirit of childhood rebellion and because I saw my dad work incredibly hard to support my family on a single teaching income, this job was never my ambition. I wanted to make movies but I was exceptionally untalented at filmmaking, a fact which various film school admissions boards also confirmed. In my final year of a mathematics degree, I interned in a pre-calculus classroom where I found myself exceptionally empathetic to the struggle of the learner and moderately gifted to resolve that struggle. Therefore, teaching. Because I wasn’t terrible. Put that on a mug. Of course, I moaned for three years that my passions and abilities hadn’t aligned. After my second year I made another unsuccessful leap at filmmaking. After my third year, my passions and my abilities aligned a little more, and it was hard, after my fourth year, to imagine doing anything but teach.

USC: What classroom methods are most helpful in pushing students towards their goals?

DM: I started using a digital projector in my third year teaching. In terms of methodology, nothing before or since has affected student achievement more. Runners up, however:

  1. I assign one homework problem per night. The longer I have taught, the less time I waste on discipline, which has made it easier to get enough done in class to let us take the evening off.
  2. I measure student achievement on a series of skill rankings, which are fluid and updated weekly. This has struck me as more accurate than a series of comprehensive unit exams.

But that’s methodology. And functional methodology in a toxic classroom culture is a bullet train to nowhere. I have made a lot of intentional steps, then, to promote “curiosity” as a cultural value of my classes.

USC: What is the one thing you wish you’d known when you started in the classroom? (i.e. advice for new teachers).

DM: Your students will excavate with profound determination and speed every social anxiety you thought you buried. It will take them minutes to decide that you are insecure about your appearance. Do not wonder if they notice your post-adolescent pimple. They do. They will exploit these anxieties as often as you allow them to. Determine quickly what matters to you and rid your psyche of the rest. Interest yourself in your students as often and as genuinely as possible. Love this job. Love your students. I’m not kidding about that last one even though I’m positive my 21-year-old self would have scoffed at that kind of attachment. Take it from me, please: you do not want to be the teacher I was when I was 21.

USC: If you have a masters in education, what did your training teach you that was most helpful in preparing you to enjoy and thrive in a classroom today?

DM: I hold the teacher preparation program at UC Davis in high regard. My coordinator, Allan Bellman, selected a cohort of chatty, introspective educators who responded to their profound, daily incompetence by talking and talking and talking. And when we stopped talking, Bellman asked good questions that got us talking again.

The same school awarded me a master’s degree, for which I now receive a modest yearly stipend from my school district. In terms of “enjoying and thriving in a classroom today” or even in terms of “students learning more from their teacher” that money is not well spent. I enjoyed the program. It taught me to think about my practice in more academic terms. But I thrived in my job and enjoyed it not even a little bit more after I finished the program. Find a good community of good teachers. Find them online if you must. Read blogs. Write a blog. Tweet, as a last resort.

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. I’m curious to hear more about how you measure student achievement. I did my undergraduate at UCSC when they had no letter grades and this already was quite an improvement over my high school experience. I’d love to get some better ideas, though.

  2. LOL I loved these responses especially the last one. I got canned from an article in my school’s magazine too. It was about career changers but the journalist was hoping to find us surprised by the classroom and teaching and we weren’t. We were both third or fourth generation teachers so even though we had done something else, it was pretty much what we expected.

    So true about social anxieties. One friend finished his masters about a decade ago in the kind of program where you do your student teaching last. After eight weeks of student teaching, he decided that he hadn’t gotten over high school enough to spend his working life there. He went off and got another masters in something else.

    I enjoy reading your blog but don’t comment often.