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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
up vote 9 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 will 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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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

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