You Compete Against Her

I want to make clear ahead of time that Vi Hart is awesome.  You can also see her videos on her blog at  But she’s a math teacher who thinks — no, who knows — that math class is so often boring to so many student, and makes no effort at all to hide her contempt of anyone who doesn’t teach the subject’s beauty.  Here’s an example of her at work with her videos.

Her videos are much better than mine, for the record.

OK, so here’s the thing.

If you’re a math teacher, you’re in competition against her.  You may not think that way — after all, she publishes videos, and you don’t, perhaps.    Or maybe you do publish imagery, but it’s not as good as what Dan Meyer publishes over at Dy/Dan.   Or maybe what you do is better than what Vi and Dan do, but you don’t publish your work.

You are in competition with them.

Don’t get me wrong: they’re not competing with you because they hate you… well, not unless you’re one of those boring math teachers that Vi rails against.  They’re just trying to excel in their chosen profession — teaching math.

But it means that for the first time, your high school and middle school math students have choices about where to learn math, and how, and from whom.  They don’t know it yet, but they have options about who is going to teach them math.  Is it going to be Vi, with her doodles, or Dan with his word games and his photographs, and his fiendishly difficult (for a history major like me) problems in real contexts?

Or is it going to be YOU?

Vi and Dan are the first evidence that teaching jobs can be outsourced.  Your job doesn’t have to move to Bangalore or Cairo to vanish from your life… it just has to move some place you’re not, like YouTube, or SlideShare, or LinkedIn, or Posterous, or, or Digg or Facebook or any of a dozen other sites where teens and young adults are. What about LiveMocha for language-learners? WordPress for English students, and Wikipedia for history and geography students?  Vi Hart is a threat to your job security.  Dan Meyer is.  I might be, too.    The bean counters and pencil pushers in too many schools know that the fastest way to lighten their budgets is to cut staff… if they can replace “surplus staff” with free video content, so much the better.

Your competitors are posting their best explanations of things online, right now.  The video is being posted right now that is turning you from a five-star educator in your district or county into a no-star ham educator who says “dude” a lot.

What are you doing to stay competitive?

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  1. The first thing to do is to get Dan and Vi Hart playing on your team. Right now, the math teacher who is sharing those doodles or WCYDWT problem with their class wins tons of points with me, not to mention her/his students. As a side effect, once you’ve pulled some of that material into your classroom, it will probably start to affect how you teach even if it’s just “from the book.”

    Yeah, there will come a point (especially for independent schools like ours) where admin might look at this as a chance to reduce staff (or just seniority) costs by outsourcing. But now, and for another year or two, that competition is only making the job of being a math teacher more fun.

    • Yeah, there will come a point (especially for independent schools like ours) where admin might look at this as a chance to reduce staff (or just seniority) costs by outsourcing. But now, and for another year or two, that competition is only making the job of being a math teacher more fun.

      And I agree. Which is why I post this — to let any of my readers who DON’T know about Vi and Dan that they SHOULD know about Vi and Dan. I showed these videos to my history classes, and suddenly everyone was doodling, and learning math. They were excited about what they were learning (although a couple of the Dark Mark sharpie tattoos may have gotten out of hand).

      But there IS a coming seismic shift in American education, possibly in global education. Our governments are running out of money. Some of them are trying to finagle their way into bankruptcy in order to shrug off pension obligations, often to teachers as well as firemen, police and other state employees. Austerity is the measure of the day for everyone except the military. The ratings agencies keep making noises about reducing the rating of American federal debt “one of these days.” Some of it is idle chatter, and some is in deadly earnest.

      Your deadline of “a year or two” seems about on-target. Which, in terms of adjusting one’s teaching style substantially, is barely adequate for the job.

    • I’m never sure where the breaking point will show first – in wealthy independent schools that have the curricular flexibility to experiment, but often are rely on very tradition-bound boards/parents for funding? Or in budget-stressed small districts that are losing enrollment and staff and are wiling to risk next year’s test results for a chance at sustainability?

      But although “a year or two” isn’t much time to retool your personal teaching practice, it’s as much time as everyone else has. So, again, your competition in this process are also your colleagues and cohort.

      This is all predicated on the simplistic notion that we’ll be facing roughly linear change in terms of our basic social institutions for the next 25 years. Basically the “non-Doom” scenario. Once we move into junk-bond federal debt or post-peak-oil futures, the evaporating of the “teacher” occupation will just be a footnote in the larger collapse of what we currently call “work.”

    • As you can see, I used my snow day to catch up on making videos, this time about medieval China. I’m going to use whatever opportunities I can to create materials to help establish whatever credentials I can as a teacher. I agree with you that our competition is also our collegial group and our cohort… I wonder what we can do to help bring them into this creative mindset.

      As for the “non-Doom scenario”, I happen to believe in catabolic collapse — the series of irregular but inevitable step-downs in both the projective power of a society (e.g., losing a war in Afghanistan seems to be popular, like the Russians, the British, the Mughals, the Parthians, the Seleucids and Alexander before them…) and the gradual step-down in social and economic services available to the poor (e.g, the replacement of the Roman middle class and artisanal yeomen by slave labor in the 100s BC). No one I know has any spare money; no one is in a position to invest; no one I know is breaking out of teaching to start a business; no one I know is writing a book with the hope of getting it published. We’re not in a Doom scenario yet, but we’re also not in a state of linear change, either. I think it spells bad news for the future, but I tend to be a pessimist by nature.

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