NCTM Denver 2013: Thoughts on Mayim Bialik's "The Power of Just One Teacher"

Mayim Bialik, known mostly for her role as Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, gave the opening talk at this year's NCTM Annual Meeting & Exposition. I must admit that having just spent 48 hours listening to research talks, I was a little relieved to be able to just sit back, leave my notetaking devices in my bag, and listen.

Mayim Bialik

I wasn't expecting anything deep and ponderous; after all, this is typically a time for cheerleading and celebrating the teaching of mathematics. (In contrast, consider the tone with which the researchers kicked off the pressession.) Two parts of the talk I especially liked. First, Bialik is outspoken in her support for public schools. Her parents were public school teachers and she was educated in public schools, even though she needed a private tutor at times when she was busy acting as a child. Second, a lot of good, interesting, and fun things came out of the Q&A she did after her talk. For example, she admitted her struggles with calculus and organic chemistry in college, but she was able to perservere to get past that on her way to a PhD in neuroscience.

If there was a part I didn't like, it was that she talked about Texas Instruments for a few minutes too many. Yes, I understand that she's a spokesperson for TI, but there was a moment there when I thought the promotion was starting to take over the talk.

I was interested in hearing Bialik's responses to questions regarding women in science. She emphasized the need to see strong female examples in STEM fields, even when those examples might be fictional, like her character on The Big Bang Theory. That's not a bad answer, but I think at this point my more critical and feminist-thinking colleagues have tuned my ears to mentions of identity development and "disrupting hegemonic power structures" in conversations like this. Perhaps her next talk could be titled, "The Power of Just One Teacher in a Professionalized, Adequately Resourced Education System." I won't hold my breath waiting for that, but that's a conversation that needs to keep happening.

Still, I like the idea that a lot of teachers at this conference are going to return to their classrooms tomorrow and excite kids with their stories of seeing Amy Farrah Fowler. You can watch Bialik's talk for yourself on the NCTM website: Jump to about 19 minutes in to see Bialik's introduction.