Max learns to do math

I have done a lot of things in my career but they have all been directed toward one end. All the jobs I’ve had have had something to do with educating or training adult students. During college and graduate school I worked with preschoolers through 5th graders but those were only jobs to get me to my ultimate goal of working with adult learners.

While working on my master’s degree one of the things I did was to complete a certificate to teach adult basic education, adults whose education level is below 8th grade.  I never used that certificate much (it expired years ago) and only taught part-time for a few months. But it is a job that had a significant impact on me.

I specifically remember a student who I’ll call Max. Max was in his late 40’s. He had grow children. He’d worked for many years in the carpet industry. He’d been given a new job which required new skills. He’d come back to school. He really needed to get his high school diploma. And his sons were working on their GED’s; he wanted to get his too.

Max was struggling with math during the months that I worked with him. He always had a short dull pencil that he’d pull out from behind his ear. I can’t do math unless I have a new sharp pencil with a good eraser. Truth is I’m lousy at math.  I might have a Ph.D., which I had then, but I’m only qualified to teach math up to the 8th grade.  Max’s math skills were well below 8th grade. Max couldn’t subtract.

Although Max didn’t overtly flirt with me, I always thought he kind of had a crush on me. I was probably ten years younger than he. As such I think he was always a little embarrassed that I was the one teaching him math. Just as I do with all my adult students, whether they are learning the alphabet or are working on a dissertation, I try to treat them as a peer, as an equal. I treat them more as colleagues than I do students. I have a lot of friendly conversations with them. I tried to mitigate his feelings of embarrassment.

I was there the night Max learned to subtract. It wasn’t really that he couldn’t subtract simple numbers. He knew how to do the problem “ten take away seven.” What he could not do was borrow. The more complicated the borrowing, the more lost he was. You’ve heard educators talk about that “aha” moment, that moment when the light comes on. Well, I’ve seen it many times. But never do I remember it more clearly than the evening when Max learned to subtract. He got it, and boy did he know that he had gotten it.  I was really so happy for him. I can feel the pride even now as I write about it. I have a big smile on my face these 20 years later.

I did not stay as a teacher of adult basic education for very long. It was not what I was called to do. But I never forgot about Max. I asked about him a few months after I left the school. He did get his GED. I’m certain it was a very happy moment for him and his family.  I feel sure he had a bigger impact on me than I had on him; after all, I could only take him through 8th grade. I am grateful that I got to know him for that very short season when we met twice each week in the library of an elementary school in a tiny town in Georgia.



2 thoughts on “Max learns to do math

  1. My dad has a story sort of like this, of teaching 30 undereducated factory workers how to do basic trigonometry so they could get better jobs in the shop. There’s just something about being the catalyst for that light-bulb moment.


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