Q&A:Teaching Means Partnerships and ImaginationTo the 1982
On April 15, Bruce Brombacher, a junior-high-school mathematics teacher from Upper Arlington, Ohio, was officially named the Teacher of the Year for 1982. Mr. Brombacher received a crystal apple from President Ronald Reagan and began what will doubtless be a busy year as an ambassador of good will for America's teachers.
Mr. Brombacher, who is 33 years old, majored in physics and mathematics at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. Unlike many mathematics teachers today, who are leaving the classroom to work in industry, he originally set out to work in research and ended up a teacher. After college, he began work on a graduate degree in physics at Ohio State University. His graduate career was interrupted by two years in the Army, and when he returned to school, he found that his research fellowship had become a teaching fellowship, and he was required to teach freshman physics. That was his introduction to classroom teaching.
Following is an edited transcript of Mr. Brombacher's recent interview with Susan Walton about his reasons for being a teacher and his thoughts on how one can best accomplish the goals of education.
Q:You started out intending to be a researcher, and instead became a teacher. Why did you shift your career choice?
A:I found myself becoming much more involved in the teaching of freshman physics and helping to develop the materials, and spending a lot less time in the lab with the machinery and the four walls, in a small room with no windows and not too many people around. At that point I said, 'This isn't for me, I want to teach.' That's where I felt I wanted to be, with children and helping them. So I took a year off to get certified, and was hired in Upper Arlington, where I've been ever since.
Q:Have you had any second thoughts since then?
A:No, I haven't. I'm glad I'm there and I'm glad I made that choice. I'm very happy about where I am, and hope to be there for many years.
I think it's the kids that make the difference--the impact I can have on their lives, and the excitement I feel about helping them in some way in the learning process. That's why I feel so good about education.
Q:Why did you pick junior high? Those are tricky years.
A:They're hectic years; they're really stormy years for kids, but I think that's part of the excitement. They can be very high at times and very low at other times. You can have an impact on their lives and help them through the rough spots. And that's exciting. Every day is a little bit different.
Q:It sounds as if you're talking about much more than teaching mathematics.
A:Exactly. It's the whole interaction with kids, in their whole lives, not just the classroom environment where we're talking about one subject area.
Q:What about the process of teaching mathematics? Do you find that it's a troublesome subject for many students?
A:There's been a lot said about math anxiety, and part of it may be because we've traditionally taught math in classrooms with pencil and paper, a lot of lectures, and a very teacher-directed curriculum. It does get frustrating that way. In my own classroom, I have a lot of student interaction in the learning process. I involve them as much as I can, to the point where I think they can assume responsibility for that learning process. The more that they can assume, the more I allow them to take responsibility and ownership.
For instance, if we're doing a unit on the metric system, I'll put that on the board, and tell them what we need to cover, and what I think is interesting about metric. Then I ask the kids, 'What do you think? What are some things you'd like to know about the metric system? What interests you about the topic?'
Then after we get it all mapped out, we try to bring it together in a discussion, and decide what kinds of activities we can use--should we do projects, or write papers, or debate, or get speakers, or go on field trips, or whatever. If I get their involvement in that, and find out how they feel, and how we can work together in a partnership, the kids feel better about themselves, that they have an active part in it, and they have some ownership of it.
Q:It sounds as if you have high expectations of your students.
A:I think they live up to our expectations. If we set them high, they'll strive for that level. It's not directed from my perspective, it's directed from their perspective. It has to be. If education is going to be important and vital to kids, it has to be coincidental with their everyday life. It can't be something that's entirely separated from it.
Q:What about in some subject other than the metric system, like algebra. Can you use this system there?
A:Because of the nature of algebra, and how structured it is, it would turn out to be more of a lecture-discussion. But at the same time, even though it's an algebra class, there are a lot of things you can do that are not lecture.
We've used the computer quite a bit in the algebra class. There are places in almost any subject you look at where you can work in materials of some sort, hands-on, that sort of thing. You can always find something if you look far enough, and if you don't know yourself, ask someone else.
That sharing among educators is very important. More than just that teacher-student partnership, you impact as many people as you can--other teachers, parents. We brought parents into the unit on the metric system, and kids learned what their parents thought for a change. The parents are excited then, and that generates discussion at home.
You get the business and community in, and ask them, 'How would the switch to the metric system affect your business?' They're pleased that the schools are talking about that. All that establishes that partnership and those lines of communication that are going to help you later on in generating more support for the schools. Those people are going to tend to be more supportive of schools if they've had a hand in what's going on.
It goes on and on; you find more and more that you can do to draw these people in. I think we're in the process of doing that. We've opened up a little more as teachers as far as public relations goes, and we're spreading the good word and trying to involve people a little more. I think that people are willing to be involved more, too.
Maybe the money crunch made us look more critically at public education and ask 'What's going on in the classroom?' We saw that there are some neat things going on. It seems to all point to the confidence returning and growing for public schools.
Q:Do you work a lot with other teachers?
A:I'm constantly using support from other people, and helping support them in what we do.
Q:Do you buy the concept of math anxiety and the notion that boys and girls differ in their mathematics ability?
A:I'm not sure. Part of it is cultural, from your environment. Boys tend toward problem-solving activities; girls tend to handle spatial relations better than boys. There are some tradeoffs both ways in mathematics. I see in my classrooms very little difference between female and male performance. As a matter of fact, the girls seem to do better in the abstract relations, and I see maybe the opposite of what you might expect.
The key is finding a level where you can get the students involved, where they feel good about what they can do with the math, and allow them to see that they can handle it. Then you start to turn [the anxiety] around.
Q:What about the notion of 'teacher burnout?'
A:Well, if you establish that partnership and that sharing effectively, it tends to help that. If you're cooped up in a classroom by yourself, and see all those problems as just your own little world, the stress can tear you apart. That's why you need students actively involved in the process. You need to have other teachers supporting you. You need to have parents and the community behind you.
Q:What you're talking about, then, is a sharing of the responsibility for education.
A:Right. A lot of things have been pushed on the schools, and we need to get the community involved. We need to tell them, 'We'll take on those responsibilities, but we need your support as we look at those responsibilities to make sure we do what's best for the kids.'
Q:What would be an ideal teaching situation for you, if you could pick one in particular?
A:It all goes back to that partnership. Regardless of what sort of supplies or resources you have, if you can establish that partnership, and get all those groups involved, I guess that would be the ideal.