I started a Twitter. I started a Twitter because I wanted to jump on the #MTBoS bandwagon. Since joining, I have used it to get ideas for class, reflected on my practices, engaged in a conversation about the purpose of high school, communicate project ideas to my students over the weekend, and even had a student bring in supplies to keep a project going for class. Unfortunately, the following I have developed has been mostly, okay, almost exclusively students.
One student asked me, “So all you do is tweet about boring teacher stuff?”
Boring? Teacher stuff? I was incredulous. This is my work, this is my life’s passion. Are we really to the point that our students think that all I do is clock in, clock out, assign some homework, grade some tests? Do I really give off the vibe that all I think of teaching is that it is just another job?
I used to think like that, but that was when I was first decided to become a teacher after listening to the advice of my guidance counselors. I followed the dogmas of, “do what you like,” and, “do what your’e good at.” I liked school and was good at school, so I should be a teacher. Problem solved. But the problem was that I was nothing but a soul crushing teacher. There was no purpose behind my teaching other than to generate work for good little obedient students, and I thought I was a great. Even my evaluations and test scores said I was great. In reality though, all I was doing was training students for a life of drudgery working menial jobs.
I managed to change though, or at least I think I did. Sure, to many students I am still just another soul crushing teacher, but I am not that to ALL my students. So here’s what happened.
First I was taking graduate courses in History at Bowling Green State University, which did two things for me. It made me reevaluate the formulation of knowledge, making me keenly aware that knowledge, truth and power, is not defined by any person. It is why the Allegory of the Cave speaks to me as more than something read in literature class. I also learned the power of the herd effect. When I was surrounded by individuals who have a very compliant view of school in undergrad, I became just like them. I did what I needed to do to get good grades, without questioning what I was doing. Being in an environment where everyone, and I mean everyone, was authentically engaged made me become engaged with learning for the first time in my life. Since those years I have never need a GPA, ACT, Praxis, or GRE score to define my worth.
Second, I had a melt down in Calculus during the 2010-2011 school year. I had been struggling to teach the subject blaming it on the “rust” that developed since I hadn’t been exposed to the subject since 2002. Eventually it became to much. I couldn’t keep justifying why things happen in math with the reasoning, “because that’s they way they are,” or, “that’s how I was taught.” I realized that I didn’t actually know Calculus, or really much other math for that matter. I had a BA in the subject, but couldn’t apply the math in anyway outside of a textbook problem, and even struggled with some textbook problems. Combined with what I was learning about knowledge in grad classes, I realized that they way I was teaching math was to make it nothing more that some torture device thought up by some people in a room somewhere to categorize students. It had absolutely no meaning. And I had this existential crisis in a single moment, in front of students.
Luckily for me they were very understanding. It was then that I decided that I needed to either leave teaching or redefine my teaching. I tried to make sure everything in math had a purpose, a reason for the way it was. Everything didn’t need to have “real-life” applications, but I started to use the term “math-world.” I wanted students to be able to at least apply what they were learning in an abstract math sense. At the time I didn’t know it, but I was trying to force my students to activate prior knowledge with the hopes that by doing so would increase retention and comprehension. Things had to at least make sense. What this means is that my classroom really became more about how to acquire knowledge more than any particular math topic.
It also made me hate the student I was during high school and college. It made me keenly aware of the horrible teacher I was early in my career.
I had found a purpose in my teaching. I want my student to find a purpose because a purpose is what keeps me up at 2:28 AM writing and reflecting on my profession, searching for ways I could be better. Purpose is what makes a career rewarding. My purpose is explaining math to students in comprehensible ways.
Facebook is a great way to stalk former high school classmates. Perusing through the ones I could find off the top of my head I found, four doctors, one lawyer, two dentists, one optometrist, one lawyer, three psychologists, two university professors, several business owners, multiple accountants, three engineers, and so on. I also noticed several who had bounced from career to career or who could have been considered to under achieve. I would count myself as that underachieving group.
Why did I underachieve? Where some of my classmate just smarter than me? The more I think about it, the more I started to realize there usually was one key difference between us. My underachiever compatriots grew up in environments where our parents had jobs and not careers. Day in and day out we never witnessed our parents pursue a career with a passion. They had jobs, but it was just a mean to pay the bills. We were never exposed to the behaviors that would lead us to a great career. Or another possibility was that we achieved good grades and accolades in school, and that was enough. As long as we made honor roll we were told “good job” and left alone. All this did was breed habits that got good grades with the least amount of learning possible. I wasn’t necessarily dumber than my more successful peers, I had just made grades and test scores an ends rather than a means.
I feel as if my college and high school years were completely squandered. When a student says, “I get good grades, but I don’t feel like I am learning anything,” I know exactly what they mean. I am especially elated that they are realizing that while still in high school, while there is still time to right the ship, unlike me, who wasted years of educational opportunity.
During the 2012-2013 school year I realize that just teaching math wasn’t enough. I was a much better math teacher, but I wasn’t pushing the students to achieve. Looking around me I saw that all I really was doing was creating clones of what I was, setting students up to find environments where they will feel comfortable, but won’t be pushed. I started to question if I can consider myself a good teacher if all I can do is teach math. I didn’t want students to squander the opportunities I did.
After watching the Larry Smith video above, I started to think back to my high school and college days, searching for reasons why I squandered my opportunities. I enjoyed my time at Jamestown, but I started to realize I ended up at Jamestown out of fear. I was worried that engineering would have been too difficult. I was fearful of going as far away as Princeton. I was worried that I would be the dumb student at U of Chicago. I was terrified of playing sports at a school like South Dakota State or Valpo. I told myself that I was JUST going to be a teacher, so Jamestown would be good enough. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Jamestown, it was that I didn’t even explore my other options. I wrote them off, rationalized away my trepidation.
My school is infected by fear as well, but it is a different fear than the one I faced. My school is infected with a fear of money. So many of my students see education purely in terms of finance. They think about careers in terms of salaries and job placements. They think about schools in terms of tuition dollars only. They think about classes in terms of ease rather than knowledge. Deep down though, I think some of them realize that this process is wrong. I want to push those students, but I don’t, because I have found that I can push students to pursue knowledge and wisdom (in terms of the Cave) or I can teach math, but often I can’t do both.
So I search for that opening from students. Those students who aren’t just content saving money at the local community college or living at home. Those students who think they could find better things out there then what’s just sitting before them. Pushing into that fear can be painful.
I ask students what their plans are for after high school. Some will get defensive when I ask and I back off. I want to push my students, I want them to desire more than the lowest cost alternative, but I am afraid. I am fearful of a society that tells me that my job is to teach students math and nothing more. Often I feel like I am confronted with choosing between doing the right thing or doing the OTES thing.
How do I respond to this internal conflict? I ask, “What are you going to do with your life?”
What I really am saying is…”I have seen some sort of potential in you. Someplace along the years you made the mistake of showing me that you have a wonderful mind that is only begging to be tapped. But you have also shown me that you are not entirely sure how you want that potential to manifest itself. You have shown me that you are conflicted between what you really want to do and what your friends and parents are telling you to do. I want to help you. I want to push you, but I can’t in this setting, in this classroom.”
Every year I see a handful of the potential Will Huntings, maybe not geniuses, but those students who are smart enough to do anything, but are too afraid to. Every year I really, really, want to give them Ben Affleck’s speech. (Don’t watch if you offended by the F-Bomb.)
I seemed to have gotten off topic.
So… I started a Twitter.