Teachers are getting a bad rap these days. To put it in perspective, my own mother -- to whom I am and shall always remain eternally grateful for -- expressed her annoyance at the fact that Ontario teachers were, yet again, going on strike. (I will also add here that she is also very supportive of the fact that her own daughter chose teaching as a profession). Like others, she felt that the strikes are an unnecessary waste of time, making teachers appear selfish and lazy. When asked what information she had to support her claim, the figure "100K" came up in conversation. WHAT? How much are teachers making a year?
$100 000. One hundred THOUSAND Canadian dollars. The supposed "average" salary Ontario teachers make a year.
Reported source? "The government."
Had it not been for the fact that a) my mother has a tendency to exaggerate the truth and b) I am a teacher myself, I may have been inclined to side with her claim. To add a bit of context: I have been teaching for five years internationally and making nowhere near that figure. For me to be earning 100K a year, I would need to have my masters degree and an additional fifteen years of full time experience.
Let's Talk About Averages
"Average" is a misleading term; it can refer to the mean, median or mode. In statistics, we call these "measures of central tendency." Let me borrow an example from Wheelan's book (Naked Statistics) to make a point.
Suppose five people are at a bar, each earning a salary of $35k a year. Undisputedly, the average salary (by all counts) of the group would be $35k. Typically, when we hear the word average, we equate it with the mean, which is the sum of all the points in a data set, and divided by the total number of values within the set.
Suppose Bill Gates walks into the bar, with a salary of $1 billion a year, bringing the average (mean) salary to $160 million. The reported figure, while still accurate, is not a fair representation of the average earnings of the majority of individuals in the group.
In this case, the knowing the median (middle value when all values are arranged from smallest to greatest) provides a bit of context. After all, the difference between 35 thousand and 160 million is no small sum.
This is a classic example of how precision can mask accuracy. Think about any time you've heard a number or figure reported in the news, consider the following statements, for instance:
Statement 1: "99% of statistics are made up" (Ha!)
Statement 2: "I have here in my hand a list of 205 -- a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department" - Joseph McCarthy, a US previous senator (1950)
Don't these it seem to bring credibility to whatever claim the person or organization is trying to assert? The first statement is, of course, made up. As for the second statement, it turns out that the paper had no names on it at all. Statistics is a tool that helps us bring meaning to data, but can be abused for nefarious purposes if wielded irresponsibly.
We should be cautious
While math may be infallible, we are not. No matter how convincing the data may be, there is always more than one way to interpret it. It's a little like telling your friends and family that the guy you just met "has a great personality," which almost always implies that there is some other flaw or red flag that has not been said (Wheelan 37).
So, back to the this 100k salary I'm supposed to be making... How did they get this data? What are the demographics of the teachers being surveyed? (It makes a difference if the majority of teachers who have been working full time in Ontario have at least 15 years of experience under their belt). Are they including retired teachers? Teachers who have recently been laid off?
I tried to trace the origins of where this figure of 100k came from. After a bit of digging, I think its likely that my mother mis-reported the figure she heard from sources that gave out misinformation.
[NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I purchased Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan many years ago, thinking its an important book to add to any Math Teacher’s arsenal (and it is!) but had only gotten through the first three chapters before dismissing it for another read. It is not a boring book - quite the opposite in fact - but I felt that mere passive reading was not enough for me to really retain the important ideas and intuition that Wheelan is trying to impart to his readers. This time, I’m giving it another chance and plan to summarize material I am learning, relate it to my own experiences, and share that learning here on my blog.]
Shortly before the start of our Chinese New Year holiday at the end of January, news had started to spread about a new virus in Wuhan, China. By the time I actually left the country, virtually everyone was wearing a face mask and activity at all major transportation hubs (railway stations, airports) had basically stalled. For a while, it seemed like we were able to escape the mass hysteria that was beginning to ensue and enjoy nearly three weeks of worry-free traveling around the Philippines.
My travel companion, Jose, and I had been keeping a close tab on the coronavirus situation, and we were warned by my relatives in Hong Kong to stock up on as many face masks and hand sanitizers as we could while we were in the Philippines as they were virtually sold out everywhere in Hong Kong and China. We had originally planned to return to Shanghai on February 16th but had been notified by our principal that the start of physical classes in China had been delayed until at least March 2. At that point, the number of reported infected people had been raising still and we contemplated travelling elsewhere to ride out the situation. The problem was, we had, and still have, no idea how long this situation would last, nor have we been given any sort of certainty as to a specific return date for work.
Jose ended up returning to Suzhou, where we both work and undergoing a 14 day quarantine, which was monitored by the building management. I made a last minute decision to return to Canada. Both our decisions were spurred on by an unfortunate encounter with bed bugs (we suspect), and us having to deal with two very different sets of symptoms that caused us a lot of emotional stress and worry. Luckily for us, we're on the path to recovery. As far as I know, majority of international teaching staff from our school are taking "extended vacations" (using this term loosely here) in various countries around the world. A few have opted to go back to Canada, some returned to China, and a few never left.
I know that many teachers and schools express issues with using WeChat as a way to communicate with students, and this was something I had a lot of hesitations with as well, which is why I've never created WeChat groups for my classes in the past. Over my last few years though, I've quickly realized that it is really the best and fastest way to reach students, and I've joined and created WeChat groups for sharing or keeping up to date with school-wide announcements, communicate with course teams or departments in the school, or get in touch with students who are part of extracurriculars I'm running.
WeChat is not just a messaging app, but also has social media features, payment options, and several other utilities built in. In short, WeChat is pretty much woven into the fabric and lifeblood of what living and working in China is like. That said, it is THE number one tool to utilize if you are looking for a stable and reliable method of communicating with people in China. No server issues, no need for a VPN… so while privacy is still a concern, it is now a part of my online instructional plan. (There is an option to limit communications with contacts to "chats" only so you can hide your social media posts).
Moodle is, and remains, the MAIN communication platform for students to access course materials, view links to filmed live sessions, submit assignments…. And so on. A couple of other tools that my colleagues have introduced that I've found extremely helpful for my classes include Zoom, an online conferencing tool, and Loom, a video recording software that uploads any videos you make onto a cloud and sharing a video is as simple as copying and pasting a link.
Given that we've been fully online with our learning for about two weeks now, we're addressing minor hiccups as we go, adjusting the pacing of our lessons, and working on finding authentic ways to assess student learning. We're thinking about how to troubleshoot potential issues with academic honesty and ways to get an accurate and holistic picture of how our students are learning. The biggest unknown at the moment is when we will be back in the classroom, and how the coronavirus situation will pan out… Guess we'll just have to wait and see.
International math educator who writes, occasionally.