Just returned from giving a short math pep talk to an Algebra II class at the small academy that we run in our church. Our wonderful math teacher had expressed to me she was concerned about some of the early performances she was seeing in the class. I asked her if I could give them a common pep talk I do, to which she readily agreed. What did I say? Something along these lines:
I had a favorite teacher years ago when I earned a Masters in the Art of Teaching Mathematics. After going through sleep-inducing classes espousing the latest educational theory and so forth, it seemed none of my professors had really taught math. But my last class was taught by a man who had been a high school math teacher for three decades. He knew how to keep our attention! I still remember his loud vocal enthusiasm as he said things like “You gotta drill them, then drill them some more! Drill! Drill! Drill!” or “Quit treating with sympathy those kids who whine like pansies. Tell them to get a life and get to work!” Like a football coach, he pounded his fist into his palm as he told us we would have to work on students’ hearts as much as their minds. How right he was! Rarely your parents or you, when you struggle with math or other hard subjects, identify that the true problem is one of the heart.
Do you know where we get our word “Math” from? (Note: I then wrote the following Greek word on the chalkboard along with its transliteration. All our other rooms have white boards, but this one has an old-fashioned chalk board. I love the dirty, dusty feeling of chalk between the fingers. But I digress).
This word is pronounced “mathetes” (Hear “math” in that?). This is the word for “disciple.” Just as in the Scriptures a disciple was one who followed and patterned himself after his teacher, be it a disciple of John, Jesus, or a rabbi, so a student in mathematics must see himself or herself as one who follows the model and pattern the teacher is setting before him or her. Did you ever think of yourself as a disciple of Mrs. McKissick. (Laughter) Yet your success or lack of it depends in part on seeing it that way.
I know your abilities well enough. There is not a one of you in here that has some mental problem that makes math too difficult for you. But we all have a heart problem that does. Often math students do not want to do the hard work necessary to succeed, because the math takes discipline. I see this all the time. Students put off the harder subjects to do easier things, be it simple assignments so they can tell their parents “I got most of my homework done” or just giving into fleshly pleasures. You see, it is not the math but the discipline it requires that you do not like.
I have math students say all the time, “What does this math problem have to do with the real world?” I tell them “Everything.” Oh, the particular lesson on graphing an equation or simplifying an expression may not have a direct correspondence (oops, sorry about the math terminology) to things you are doing today or will do in the future, be it mowing the lawn, playing a sport, or what you do when you grow up. But you are learning discipline, logical ways of thinking, details about how things relate in God’s world and so forth that will be indispensable to you when you get older. Don’t think that you will one day wake up and be responsible and knowledgeable enough to be a good worker or employer. It takes steps to get there. Your next math lesson is one of them. By the way, the next time you ask what math has to do with the real world, how about I ask you the same regarding the song you are listening to, the movie you are watching, or the computer game you are playing?
So how about this? Next time instead of saying “I hate math” which will get you nowhere, instead say “I hate discipline.” You will be more honest with yourself. And then you will also start realizing how foolish that sounds, for the godly are to love discipline in whatever form God may choose to bring it. As Proverbs 23:12 says, “Apply your heart to discipline, and your ears to words of knowledge.”