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I think the title says it all, but in case it does not:

  • Is being a math teacher gratifying?
  • If yes, what is gratifying in being a math teacher? (If not, why...)
  • Does the feeling lasts, or perhaps fades or blossoms with age?
  • What events that happened to you as a teacher were most gratifying?

The above questions are just suggestions, what I'm looking for is opinions or testimonies that could inspire. For example, one could use it during training new instructors, or explaining to a new grad student some benefits of teaching. The only requirement is self-containment, that is, the posts should include any context that is necessary to understand why it is/was gratifying for you.

I feel this is a borderline off-topic and should be made at least CW. On the other hand, there's no better place to gather such stories but here. I guess it will be of substantial help to anyone who needs to hear why being a teacher is great and worth its sweat (e.g. prospective new teachers or current teachers feeling down at the moment).


If the question is too broad for you, you could always try sharing the moment that was most gratifying in your career as a mathematics teacher. Relevant meta post is here.

As for the scope, I'm mainly interested in university-level education. However, illuminating examples from high school or even elementary school are also welcome (especially if they regard gifted students during some math circles, etc.).

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The question has a meta thread Further discussion about the question should happen there. Copies of some deleted 'meta' comments are preserved there. – quid Apr 10 '14 at 16:04
What makes it all worthwhile for me is seeing the looks of fear on their faces. – Ben Crowell Apr 17 at 1:32
I'm in it for the cold, hard, cash money. – James S. Cook Apr 18 at 1:32
up vote 15 down vote accepted

In searching for information about hours of work per week by teachers at the secondary vs. tertiary level (for an earlier question) I came across a nice report by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A summary-type page can be found here; the full report (pdf) can be found here.

(From the same study) A nice summary of "teachers on teaching" can be found here; it begins:

enter image description here

enter image description here

Much more can be found in the full report.

For now, I exclude in-depth discussion of my own personal experiences, though I can briefly answer your four questions: I find teaching to be very gratifying; for me, the gratification comes primarily from the first six bars in the histogram above; I'm at an early stage in my career, but thus far the feeling has only grown; the most gratifying experiences, of course, have come from seeing those who I helped (by "teaching" or, as I prefer, "working alongside") demonstrate meaningful learning has occurred.

Closing comment: With regard to one of the above-described sources of gratification ("to help students reach their full potential") there is a nice piece called "An Exhortation to Learning" 《劝学》 by the Confucian philosopher Xunzi (荀子). In this piece (ca. mid-200s BCE) he writes:

My translation: The dye of the indigo plant is even bluer than the plant itself

Original wording: 青,取之于蓝,而青于蓝

Modern phrasing: 青出于蓝而胜于蓝

This is written in regard to teaching, where the goal, stated metaphorically, is to produce students whose abilities exceed those of the teachers (just as the plant produces a dye bluer than itself). More than two millenia later, I believe this is still a valuable goal to keep in mind; and, for me, it is the most gratifying outcome of being a teacher.

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I wasn't expecting such an answer this fast. Thank you very much! Should you have a bit of time, I would appreciate even a short story from your experience (the shorter version perhaps is even better than the longer, to avoid clogging the rest of your post). – dtldarek Apr 10 '14 at 14:41
@dtldarek You may wish to check out the linked report; I think you'll find quite a bit of relevant content there. Insofar as personal anecdotes, I may edit one in sometime in the future (thereby rendering my comment here obsolete enough to delete it). It's not clear to me whether your post will garner other responses or be closed (I see one close-vote cast already, and you yourself remark in the body: "I feel this is borderline off-topic..."). For now, let me not make my already-long-post even longer... – Benjamin Dickman Apr 10 '14 at 14:46

What I find gratifying about teaching, math specifically, is learning from my students. I cannot count how many times I have had students come to me and ask me to check their work because they were not sure they were doing it correctly, and they end up teaching me a method of solving the problems that I have never thought of before. I love showing students who do not believe in themselves, that they can, in fact, "do" math. One of the worst things about beginning a new school year is having students with little to no confidence in their math abilities and then helping them realize that all they have to do is try.

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Since one point was not made very forcefully in the other answers: I like teaching mathematics because, even on the worst days, I get to talk/think/engage about mathematics... which I somehow find endlessly entertaining.

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It would have been fairer to comment, too, that I usually get very positive teaching ratings. At this point in my life, I mostly find interest in teaching graduate-level courses, especially "electives", so that people are in the room because they choose so. But, also, along the way, I did occasionally radically revamp "standard lower-division" courses in light of the notion that mathematics is amazing, is effective, is provocative, etc. Sadly, yes, we have to refer to its use as "filter"... Sigh. Pity that a cool thing is used as gate-keeper... but that fact has allowed large math depts... !?! – paul garrett Apr 16 at 0:17

In part, we stick to it because we like it. We would be doing something else otherwise... and pay is way better elsewhere. Small wonder that the survey turns out as it does.

My personal reasons to teach (not math, in general) at the university is that it keeps you in touch with very bright, motivated people (no, I don't believe the old chant of "students are even dumber this year around"). Your work is ever changing, it doesn't get boring. To a large extent, you define your own tasks, a freedom seldom seen elsewhere.

And it is certainly a big satisfaction when you see your ex-students succeed in life later on.

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For me, the strongest immediate gratification comes when a student suddenly understands something: "Oh, now I get it!" The strongest delayed gratification is when students and former students do well over the years.

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Could you share one of your student "Oh, now I get it!" moments? – dtldarek Apr 11 '14 at 7:17
@dtldarek This usually happens in office hours, rather than in class. In one case, in a basic course on probability theory, a student suddenly understood the idea behind the notion of standard deviation; I don't remember what exactly I did to provoke that understanding, but I'm pretty sure it was mostly a matter of listening carefully to the student and trying to decipher what was causing the confusion. (More generally: Much as I try to anticipate confusions and dispel them in lectures, students still come up with new, surprising ones.) – Andreas Blass Apr 11 '14 at 13:37
Well, it would be great if you could edit that into your post. – dtldarek Apr 11 '14 at 14:37

With respect to Benjamin's answer, the top reason in his graphic "to make a difference."

enter image description here

I received the note above at the end of the last school year. The first few reasons listed are slight variations of this 'difference' idea. For me, it's a part time job, just 2 days a week, and so far, in 3 years, I've never had a bad day.

I've met with students who are learning disabled, and when I thought I let them down, they visit again, and the week after, the teacher stops by and asks how I got the student to pass his last exam.

To the 'full potential' (no. 3 on that slide), I know that most students are not going to gain a love for math, (the slide no.2) so while I stick with that enthusiasm, to the student who comes in with the "I hate math" attitude, I explain that my role is to help her understand, pass, and get the best grade she's capable of. Last week, such a student finished a session with me, and said "I still hate this." I asked "But do you understand it better now than when you walked in, 90 minutes ago?" And she answered yes.

The one thing missing from the graphic - to show students respect and caring. One of my jobs is to proctor missed exams. Some of the students are allowed extra time and often, if they come during the last period, I might need to stay late. Not one such student has ever taken it for granted. When the bell rings to end the day at 3:20, and at 4:00 I tell them to take their time, and be sure to check the work. "My family time starts at 6 tonight, I can get caught up on my emails here with you or at my desk at home. No difference to me." I don't always know what their life is like with friends, family, etc. I just know that in my room, I can have them feel that they are important, my top priority.

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I would answer it with a story:

My aunt whom I stay with is a Math lecturer for last 21 years and she tells me things happening everyday. From all that, what I could collect is this:

  1. The starting respect: She says "Compared to any other, the students have a respect for you from the starting day as helloooo- you are eligible enough to teach a subject which most people are afraid of."
  2. Keeping it interactive: As the subject is a bit dry, she always cracks jokes, smiles a lot and not lazy to answer something more than once. She thinks that the students need a bit of an extra care to keep them active during the class hours.
  3. Tough moments: As we are not god to know everything, if a questions stays unattended and the students give a strange look of "who made this person a teacher" she always came back the next day to give a fantastic answer in such a way that all the trust you lost regains.
  4. Emotions: She says "Dont expect too much that you will get response from your students after they pass out. As they will choose a particular stream, they will remember the faculties of that stream more than you as yours was a base subject. But there will be few who who will understand that without you they could not be anything in life and when you hear from them, it'll make your day. The response from these people will be genuine than the others as only few understand what an important part you have played in your life. Math is the base for all and we always need to know it."

From this, I hope you would get a vibe of the answer you were looking for.

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Thank you for your and your aunt's observations. – dtldarek Apr 15 at 13:47
I reformatted your answer for better legibility. Feel free to roll back or re-edit if you don't like what I did. And thanks for the answer! – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 15 at 14:03
@JoonasIlmavirta- It was perfect! thanks :) – rohit nair Apr 15 at 14:43

Since the other posts here are positive, I'll go ahead and say that it's not, or at least not necessarily, gratifying. You're talking about undergrad-level education, presumably something like calculus, complex analysis, etc. Someone commented above that you can learn more about the subject by teaching it to students; but you presumably have a PhD in mathematics, and you're honestly not going to learn anything from teaching introductory calculus. Someone commented above that it's a chance to do mathematics; but teaching a class on century-old mathematics is not the same as actually doing mathematics itself, whether it's solving new problems or completely original research. Someone commented above that it's great to teach students who can surpass you and help them up the ladder; but those students are going to be quite rare; besides, there's not much you need to do to teach them, since they're going to be able to pick up the material themselves, independently. Someone commented above that you can make a difference in students' lives; but you're also going to be teaching dozens of students who are only there because it's a requirement, and really just want you to spoonfeed them answers for an upcoming exam. Someone commented above that it's great to be around intellectually engaged people, and that's certainly true; but teaching an undergrad math class is not like crashing a math conference. And so on.

You may disagree, and that's totally fine. Great: You should seriously look into mathematics education, whether at the university level or below. My point is simply that it isn't all great, or even partially great, for everyone. There are rewards to it, whether concrete or in warm fuzzy feelings; if you want those rewards, go for it. If not, try something else. Just don't expect to have those rewards guaranteed or continual.

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