Benjamin Coleman on Japan's Idiosyncrasies and Butting Heads with an Algebra Teacher

Noodle Expert Benjamin Coleman talks about his stubborn 12-year-old self, learning from Ben Franklin's work/life balance, and how helping out his classmates led to his career as a math teacher.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn

I would pick Benjamin Franklin in a heartbeat. Not only was he a renaissance man of the highest order, he kept a meticulously managed schedule and was still able to let loose and joke around. The older I get, the harder it seems to maintain this work/life balance. I think I could learn a thing or two from old Ben.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

My parents used to tell me: "giving up is a choice." They meant that, in life, some situations seem difficult to the point of impossibility. But people aren't fated to fail; giving up is a choice in the same way that being creative, tenacious, and relentless in problem-solving is a choice. The only difference is that the latter is much more satisfying.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I'm partial to Japan. It is an incredibly unique opportunity to observe a completely developed and democratic country in which, although undoubtedly influenced by Western culture, every minute detail is in some way different from what an American is used to. It's not the broad strokes that really affected me during my time in Japan, but the smallest differences. It is a truly unparalleled experience.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

When I was 12, I was convinced my algebra teacher had it out for me. Now I look back and realize my math grades were slipping for the first time in my life because the math was starting to get hard. The problems were multi-step, involving careful checking, revising, and following a rigid procedure. I had two choices: fail or adapt. Unfortunately, as a stubborn adolescent, I was convinced that everything my teacher was trying to teach me was wrong — of course I already knew everything there was to know! It was only after failing that I realized something had to change in my approach. For all of these reasons, a subject I believed I was infallible in suddenly became my biggest roadblock.

The next year I decided to actually listen to my teacher, complete the practice homework and organize my work. I'm convinced that this experience is responsible for my success in high school and college. I learned that sometimes the most soul-crushing experiences, academically or otherwise, are necessary to make you realize your own flaws. Once you can see your most glaring short-comings, they are easier to change and improve upon.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I got into teaching initially because I realized my favorite part of math class was explaining the concepts to my classmates. There is a certain joy in knowing that you are responsible for helping someone connect the dots. Seeing confusion turn to understanding in someone's eyes is a singularly exciting feeling for me and hooked me in to education.

Once I got teaching, I realized that not all students will come to the same conclusions or understand content in the the same way I do. Therein lies the art of teaching. My expectations of enthusiastic classes, eager to assimilate all of the knowledge I was ready to dispense, evaporated my first day on the job. However, the challenge of making even the most mundane concepts accessible to all of my students has provided more intellectual rigor than I could have hoped for.

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