It’s no wonder many people who excel at mathematics are drawn to master’s degree programs in math education. After all, why would you even consider pursuing an advanced degree in a subject if you were not good at and interested in that discipline? However, whether math education, as opposed to theoretical or applied mathematics, is the right choice for you depends on plenty of factors. Whether you’re thinking of transitioning to a teaching career from a non-teaching role or seeking to specialize your teaching role in the area of mathematics, you should consider what qualities you need to excel in teaching math, the curriculum differences between math and math education programs and the benefits and drawbacks of being a math teacher.
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The Qualities of a Great Math Teacher
The fact that you are good at math is one of the most important factors for success in teaching math, especially in the higher grade levels, where the curriculum becomes more complex. However, having strong math skills yourself isn’t all that’s required to do well as a math teacher. You need the teaching skills and personal characteristics that help you become good at imparting knowledge to an audience without advanced knowledge of mathematics.
Unlike mathematicians, whose job is to explore advanced mathematics to add to the collective knowledge of the discipline and solve real-world problems, math teachers focus on cultivating math skills in others. To do well in that, you need strong communication skills, resourcefulness and plenty of patience, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). These skills will help you perform the crucial tasks of a math teacher, like developing and implementing lessons and educational activities in the classroom and adapting your teaching methods and curriculum as needed to keep pace with students’ academic performance, interests and needs.
Which age group you want to work with also affects which qualities are most valuable for your profession. Teachers of the younger grades need the physical stamina to keep up with active elementary school students, while high school teachers should be able to connect with older students.
Studies in Math Education vs. Mathematics
If you think the curriculum for a master’s degree in math education is fairly similar to that of a mathematics degree, you are in for a surprise. Master’s degrees in mathematics cover the advanced theories, concepts and practices of the many mathematical sciences. The focus is usually on developing the depth and breadth of knowledge needed to advance research in the field of either applied or theoretical mathematics. In a math education program, furthering your education in mathematics takes a backseat to learning about how to teach math concepts and strategies to your future students. The focus of the core coursework is very different, just like the careers these two types of graduate degrees prepare you to have.
Mathematician is a small but growing career field. The BLS predicts jobs to grow by 30 percent for mathematicians and statisticians, compared to just three to four percent for teachers – but total job gains will be only around 14,400, compared to 107,500 for elementary through high school teachers.
Who Should Consider a Math Education Graduate Degree?
Generally, there are two situations in which it makes sense to pursue graduate studies in math education: acquiring an initial teaching license and expanding your existing skills in teaching or specifically in teaching mathematics. If you earned a bachelor’s degree in math, or in another subject but found that you really enjoyed your math coursework, then a licensure master’s degree in math education could be what you need to prepare for your initial teaching certification.
For teachers already in the field, you might choose to earn a master’s degree in math education for numerous reasons. Perhaps you pursued a different content area in college but have decided that you would rather teach math. A non-licensure or specialist program could be what you need to become highly qualified in mathematics. If you already teach math, you might choose to pursue a master’s degree to advance to a lead teacher position, see a salary increase or simply develop your teaching skills to your full potential.
A master’s degree program in math education will not do much to help your career in non-teaching mathematics career roles. If you really want to be a mathematician, or even a mathematics researcher and professor at a university, consider a graduate degree in pure or applied mathematics, instead.