Why I Teach (Part 3)

Why do I teach? A quick search of the internet provides a variety of reasons, one of the most frequent being that teaching is a way to change the world for the better. At this point in my career I truly believe that to be the case.

What exactly does that mean, though, to change the world for the better? My previous post referred to the sickening feeling that I got when I realized that my whole school career centered on authority and control. My teachers (authority) had the answers (knowledge) and used grades to reinforce certain behaviors (control). I don’t believe that they had malicious intent, but that they were a product of a system that produces this behavior.

I don’t want to be a part of it. I think it is the reason that we have students who can pass Algebra II, Calculus, and other college level math classes, but can’t manage to create and maintain a personal budget. I think it explains the phenomena of the student who is on honor roll, but is below average on the ACT and other standardized tests. I think it is the reason that there are phrases like, “He’s good at book learning, but has no common sense.” As a society, we have created a system that rewards obedience and complacency. Many of our students just become cogs in the giant mechanism. Remove the mechanism and they fail.

So, why do I teach?

  1. I am here to break the machine. I want to create students who are free and independent thinkers. I want to create students who question authority with the power of knowledge. This doesn’t mean that our schools can’t have the three R’s; rules, regulations, and rubrics. Everything in the lives of our students should have a purpose, and they should know that purpose. Nothing, absolutely nothing that we do in school should happen because, “it’s a rule,” or “because I am the authority.”

It is a struggle to turn students into free thinkers, but the rewards of the struggle are immense. That moment you realize you are not beholden to anyone for knowledge, that you have control over knowledge, you become empowered. And there are no words that can describe what living an empowered life is like. Unfortunately far too many students, far too many people, will never experience the empowerment that comes with knowledge.

  1. The second reason that I am a teacher is to have math make sense to my students. I want my students to move from a position of duplication and memorization to a place where they can reason through a problem. It’s a laudable goal, but I cannot emphasize the gulf that exists between #1 and #2 enough. Also, I hope it was noticed that there was nothing in #1 that specifically mentions math.
  2. I hope that students who go through my class and plan on attending college will at least avoid remedial classes.

As much as I hope that all my students will be in #1, I know that most are in the second and third reason that I teach, with a few not even in any. I care about all my students, I really do. I would never wish anything less than success for any of them. But for the few that fall into my first reason for being a teacher, you are the reason that I keep getting out of bed. You are the reason I keep coming back each year. You are what has kept teaching from becoming a “job.” The fact that I know at least a few of you exist will keep me coming back.

Why I Teach (Part 2)

Last time I wrote I laid out the foundation of why I teach, or at least what I thought those reasons were. With the benefit of hindsight I realize I was so very misguided. My moment of grand realization, this epiphany, occurred during the 2010-2011 school year. I had been teaching Geometry, Algebra I, and Calculus. I had noticed that my geometry had centered around memorizing a whole bunch of theorems. Not in the sense to just regurgitate them, but so that students could apply them to algebraic equations. I told myself that this made me a good teacher. Students criticized me for this style of teaching, but the criticism came in the form of complaints, so I usually brushed it off and kept moving forward.

One day, in my Calculus class, a student simply asked, “Why?” There was no complaining, no questioning of the premise of school, just, “why?” He could have just copied and memorized the procedure, like most students do, but in that moment he decided he wanted to know why the procedure worked. And guess how I answered, “I don’t know.”

That really frustrated me at the time. I had struggled teaching Calculus and I had simply blamed the problem on the fact that I had not spent time with the course for five years. But this time it was different. I started reflecting on the idea that math was just about all the procedures I had accumulated in class. I realized that I was able to DO most of the math problems that came my way, but I didn’t understand WHY the procedures I was using were working. As I spent more and more time reflecting, I came to the conclusion that for me, math was nothing more than a contrived system of rules for students to memorize and apply in the context of math class.

At the same time though, I knew that math was not invented in some vacuum away from reality. I knew that math was and is used by builders, engineers, scientists and many others, so why should it be viewed in school within the context of hoop jumping. Too many students, teachers, and people in general only view math as something that has to be done without any real value too it. I have heard far too many people describe my content as a way to weed out the lazy, stupid, and unmotivated. I didn’t want to be a part of that.

I also had a personal crisis. I had struggled to teach Calculus I. I had a BA in Mathematics. That thought caused some serious cognitive dissonance. What was the purpose of my math major if I couldn’t apply, let alone remember what I had done several years ago? At the same time I was thinking this I had just begun work on a History Masters, which has really transformed the way I view authority, power, and knowledge. I slowly began to rework my math understanding, moving into a realm where math had to make sense. It was no longer enough to get my answers to match the book because the book did not have authority of knowledge. The book only had authority of title. As math began to make sense I started to organically see the applications of the math subjects I would be teaching. I began to view complex math schema rather than a jumbled collection of memorized examples.

As math started to make sense to me, for the first time in my life really, I became very frustrated with my former self. I thought about all the opportunity that I had wasted striving for grades rather than understanding. To this very day I look back at my high school and college experience with regret because I was a label chaser, I wanted the GPA, I wanted the degrees. I achieved them, but knew nothing.

I never want my students to go through that.

Why do I teach? (Part 1)

The last few days I have really been thinking about purpose, as in, “Why am I here?” Now I don’t mean in the big meaning of life philosophical sense, but why am I a teacher, what is my purpose? Usually I don’t think about this question all that much, but maybe I have been because the last few days I really have felt like my goals do not align with the way I perceive the goals of society. And, as I take time to reflect upon my past experience, I have realized that my purpose as a teacher has changed drastically from when I started.

Way back in my high school days, the late 1990s, I followed the mantra used by our counselors and the society in general. There were essentially two parts to this advice: 1. Find something you’re good at (aptitude), and 2. Find something you like to do (interest). Out of all the ideas bouncing around in my head, I kept coming back to teaching. It was nowhere near the top of my career interest survey our counselors had us fill out, which I would venture to guess, is because most teachers I know are extroverts. According to the survey I would be good at engineering, water-well technician, or a dude ranch operator, among other occupations, but teaching wasn’t the top.

So how did I end up teaching? Well, I was the rare male student that would admit that I liked school. I liked class, I like the extracurricular activities, I like the social interaction, even though for me it was limited. I decided that if I liked school so much, I shouldn’t want to leave. I also decided that I was “good” at school. I found that achievement in the classroom came relatively easy for me and that some of my classmates would turn to me for assistance with homework or class projects. They seemed to genuinely appreciate my explanations.

I was good at school and I liked it, so therefore I should be a teacher, it fit perfectly into the messages I had been receiving from society. It also shaped my personal goals for my classroom and teaching style. In hindsight, I had laid out these reasons for my purpose as a teacher.

  1. I wanted students to enjoy school, even if math wasn’t their passion.
  2. I wanted students to be able to get good grades and test scores in math.

That’s how I taught for my first several years of teaching. I wanted students to at least not be repulsed by the thought of coming to my class and I wanted them to get decent test scores. It was during my fifth year in the profession that I had some transformative events that would begin to forever change the purpose behind my teaching. But I really think those rants need to be saved for some separate posts.

Why do we have to do this?

At some point almost every teacher I know will get the dreaded, “Why do we have to do this stuff?” Today we were working through the verification of trigonometric identities and that question came out of the ether on a Monday morning. I have been thinking to myself, how should I answer this?

  1. I could just silence the student for insubordination, but that would require a misuse of authority. I distrust people who demand blind obedience.
  2. I could use the textbook line, “You can use trigonometric identities to rewrite trigonometric equations that model real-life situations. For instance, in exercise 58 on page 556, you can use trigonometric identities to simplify the equations that model the length of a shadow cast by a gnomon.” Wow, it says real-life, but then directs the reader back to the exercise problems. This had to be written to appease some bureaucrats that have no understanding of math. And how many people know what a gnomon is without looking it up.
  3. I could use the, “It is good for problem-solving and critical thinking skills.” But the flaw there is that problem-solving and critical thinking skills can be taught with other subjects, it’s not unique to math class, so why bother with the painful math?
  4. I could use the, “You will need this in college, work, etc.” However, do we really need the math as it is taught in school for college or work, or is it that those particular fields just use the class as a way to separate and classify people, making math class a filter? And if that is true, can I be content with my teaching knowing I am just a filter?
  5. I could say that, “The state requires this stuff, so there is nothing I can do.” That doesn’t sit well because now I am just passing the blame to someone else. Also, see what I said about authority in number one.

Honestly, I believe there is a kernel of truth in all of those statements, but I don’t believe alone, any one of those statements can be proper justification for the misery students feel in math class. So, what do I tell my students? What should I say when I really think their frustration stems from deeper issues of how we teach math and how shallow their understanding of mathematical concepts are? When I view trigonometric identities all I see are arithmetic expressions to be simplified. As long as I can do arithmetic, I can prove trigonometric identities. So a better question would be, “Why should I not verify this equation before me?”

Sitting in those desks though, trying to absorb the information, it doesn’t come across as relevant and pertinent. Our schools have created such a Pavlovian response to education that many students have lost the wonder of learning just for the sake of learning. Too many of them view education through the lens of correct answers and the quickest means to achieve them. Their minds have been trained to reward their emotions for extrinsic rewards like grades, meaning far too few of them ENJOY THE PROCESS.

And there I stand, at the front of the room, thoroughly enjoying the process of math that lay before me while they see a gauntlet that must be endured to achieve the grade. I’ve made up my mind, they’ve made up theirs. Our viewpoints are incompatible. We are just too different.

Try, try, try again

I hate to admit it, but this will be at least my fourth attempt at writing a blog. Maybe this time will be different. But I have been really taking time to search within to find the reason that I have this burning desire to do this. Sometimes the raging inferno simmers down to just some glowing embers, but it has never been snuffed out.

One of the few blogs that I read on a semi-consistent basis (emergentmath) linked to video presentation by Simon Sinek about his idea of the “golden circle.” Just a brief side note, I don’t think he discovered or invented anything groundbreaking, but he was one of the first to articulate it precisely and market it well.

So, why? Why, why, why? Why do I want to write, and why do I keep quitting. Maybe I will start back at the beginning.

I thought about all the times I had failed, and each time I started blogging I began with asking myself what it is I need to do. I have this disability called introvertism. Okay, I’m just making that up, but I am an introvert, which makes communication, especially in unfamiliar settings, very uncomfortable. One of the categories teachers are evaluated upon is communication. And I thought I could communicate more passively by using a blog. I know how to communicate. I know what I want to say. But I almost never do. As an introvert I fear conflict so I usually censor myself. Basically, I am shy. As my comfort level around people or in different situations, my censor gradually disappears, but very, very few people actually see the unfiltered me.

Consequently, every time I tried to start a blog it failed. The first time it failed because I was writing to improve my communication with parents, but when no one used or looked at the blog I quit because it was just a waste of my time. I was writing to communicate with others, and when there was no communication I quit. I felt one way communication was waste of my time. I needed to find a way to convince myself that blogging wouldn’t be a waste of my time. This time I won’t fail because this time I am writing for me, usage be damned. I want to document my memories, my stories, the process of how I became the teacher I am today, regardless of how many people actually read this.

Why am I doing this? I have a multitude of life experiences that have shaped who I am as a person and who I am as a teacher.

How am I going to do this? I am going to record those experiences in the ether of the internet.

What am I going to do? I am going to write a blog.

Hope someone reads it.

Reflecting on My Education

I just had my first evaluation of the year and one of the questions that I had to answer was about reflecting and analyzing. Well, it was worded as a statement, so it really wasn’t a question, but the point holds. So here is the question, or statement.

Discuss the ways in which you analyze and reflect on your teaching.

The moment I read this I was instantly appalled. Reflecting on my practices as a teacher has become so ingrained into the fiber of my being that it is nearly impossible for me to think about teaching without reflecting on my actions. I felt like someone was asking me how I think about breathing. Can’t remember the last time I thought about breathing.

But since I am a math teacher let me think about the original question as a contradiction. Picture the teacher who never reflects or analyzes his teaching. The class is the same year after year. If asked about student performance the answer always starts with a, “They,” as if the teacher never a gave a thought to his own actions.

“They didn’t study.”

“They didn’t turn in the assignment.”

“They didn’t pay attention.”

At no point is the teacher responsible. Usually this teacher gets defensive when asked about results, always thinking he has done his part and it’s always the students fault. I think this would be the straw man teacher that is usually lampooned in the media as the bad teacher, that teacher that shows up at 7:45 and leaves at 3:15. This teacher would show up, lecture, then test, and that would be it. Think Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. Anyone? Anyone?

But in reality this teacher doesn’t exist. I know we all have different methods, different personalities, even different philosophies, but I have never met a teacher that literally does not question their own practice. Even the few teachers I know that might not question their methods will question their beliefs. They might wonder about the purpose of a homework assignment, or wonder about topics that should be covered, or wonder if their own expectations of what the profession should be are misguided.

So when I came to this question on my OTES evaluation I just really didn’t know how to answer. I mean reflection has become such a part of me that I don’t know how to shut it off. I literally cannot stop my mind during the school year. I am constantly wondering about how I should change my presentations. What information to put on an assessment? How hard can I push the students? Should I change the grouping in class? How can I assist this one student, but keep the rest of the class engaged? It doesn’t stop. It hangs with me over the weekend, over the summers, even over the years. The “I shouldn’t haves” and the “I should haves.” Sometimes I act on those reflections, sometimes I don’t, but they never leave.

And that is what I want the focus of this blog to be, the questions I have asked myself over the years. I can’t stop the deluge of thoughts, but I hope that I can find a dumping ground for them. No math, no practice, no concepts, just me and my thoughts in its own little delusional world.