I Almost Quit Teaching…

Classroom management.

That is a popular term on the Google. One of the most common gripes with new teachers is that college never really taught them anything about classroom management. I couldn’t agree more. I also really HATE that term because classroom management is really code for how to make kids behave. (Maybe there are some amazing examples out there but the ones I have experience generally center around behavior modification, whether that be through positive or negative influences.)

When I was in school I was a good pupil. I still am to some extent. Students will tune me out in class, but truthfully, I really don’t care. I understand the plight of many of them, being forced to take a class they don’t want to. I have sat through many a professional development sessions, college classes, and even high school classes and felt the same way. Sometimes I would just go through the motions and sometimes I would completely disengage. For me, disengagement meant daydreaming or doodling, not rebellion. I had been in classrooms where students had acted out, but because I was tracked it didn’t happen often.

My 7th through 12th grade experience was marked mostly by being surrounded by good, complacent students. Though I knew acts of disobedience and rebellion did occur, I rarely witnessed them, let alone participated in them. I can only recall one time where I was openly defiant and that was during football, not in the classroom.

So the first time I took control of a classroom as a student teacher I was lost. My mathematics student teaching was in an Algebra I classroom in a school that tracked students, and I wasn’t with the good, obedient students.

I started presenting material, and a couple of students started talking over me. I made verbal corrections like I had witnessed my teachers do before, but I also began wondering, “Why do they do this to me, but not the other teacher?” Honestly, I still wonder this sometimes. I kept teaching like this for a couple of days. At first students would respond to my corrections, but eventually they stopped all together. I then moved to the next phase that I had witnessed in my schooling, the hallway chat. I took the worst offender into the hallway and discussed the behavior with the student. Finally, I reached the point where I started handing out detentions.

But it still wasn’t enough. There were still disruptions, still students being defiant. At last a couple of students spoke up, wondering aloud why that student was being disciplined, but not another student. Rather than end the discussion I engaged in a dialogue that was ultimately a power struggle between me and the students. Then a day or two later, it happened again. This time though, I lost it and cussed out the class. And when it started to happen again a few days later I took a couple of students out of the class that I was working with, told the cooperating teacher I was leaving and going to work with the students that wanted to learn. When I came back, my cooperating teacher told me that the kids were worried that I had quit on them. I was told to stay away from a parent teacher conference.

I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with strep throat. I don’t think I had it, but I was able to harass him into giving me a prescription and a note so that I wouldn’t have to go back until the next week. I wasn’t sure if teaching was for me, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I walked out of a class in the middle of the day. (Coincidentally this is how I obtained my first, semi-permanent job.)

Obviously I didn’t quit and am still teaching after 11 years. How did I manage to last that long?

This past Thursday we had a guest speaker come to talk to our students, of which many spoke highly. He did a brief presentation to the teachers before school during which he made the following claim.

“If you lie to a student and are caught, it is over.”

Yup, that perfectly summed up my student teaching experience. When I tried to discipline my students they challenged me, and deep down, I knew they were right. I claimed that one student was a distraction, but then insisted another one wasn’t. If I acknowledged the correctness of their argument, it would represent that I had lost control of my classroom, and I had been taught that was unacceptable.

My experience forced me to question the idea of authenticity. Across three different states and with numerous veteran teachers, I have heard a variation of the line, “You’ve got to take control, be the one in charge,” or in the case of female teachers, “Sometimes, you’ve just got to be a bitch.”

I am then left with the choice of either authentically acknowledging that I lied to my students and  not caring that they will view me as a liar, including all the spite and contempt that comes with that position, or acknowledging that I am a mean spirited person. I really, really don’t like either of the those propositions.

While my positions on behavior and classroom management have evolved the longer I have been a teacher, I can pinpoint the moment that I think I actually started to realize that I would make it. After my meltdown, I slowly worked my back to being in front of a class. The first time I went in front to lecture, a kid in the front row, covered in crank bugs, looks up and says, “F*** YOU!”

The class was silent, waiting for me to react. They were probably expecting me to explode and kick the kid out of class. But instead of doing what I had seen other teachers do, I decided to do what came naturally to me. I looked the kid in the eye and replied in a dull, monotone voice, “Awesome.” I turned around and kept presenting material. I know many of my coworkers would be appalled that I would let something like that happen, but the students that have had me for years probably wouldn’t be shocked.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks I started to let myself come through in my teaching more. I would joke around with the kids a little more while at the same time asking more questions and demanding more work. I would share stories from school or be sympathetic to their frustrations incomprehensible rules while probing their minds about linear relationships. To act as if I got a glowing review from my cooperating teacher would be disingenuous, but at least I could live with myself.

Now I do the things that come naturally to me. My classes are loud and blanketed with chit-chat because that’s what my personality invites. This doesn’t mean that my classroom is unproductive. I like to get side tracked on conversations with students. This doesn’t mean that they are disrupted. To me it is normal to be referencing Back to the Future, discussing Carol of the Bells parodies, and teaching about angle relationships created by transversals; at the same time. My classroom is pretty barren and depressing, but I do have a buffalo head. cam00102 Why? BECAUSE I HAVE A BUFFALO HEAD! What other reason would I need? I like to joke around with students. I like to throw around insults, that are meant in the most supportive way possible. I like to go to their musicals and athletic events. All those things build their trust. Once I have their trust I can do what I really want to do, which is push them to their limit, to their breaking point.

I still feel the pressure to conform, to have hooks, give out detentions, assign homeworkticket-in, have students sit in rows, keep them busy. I feel the pressure to be like other teachers, to use feedback devices like a ticket system, even though I believe they are pedantic. I feel pressure to hand out detentions or use reward days, even though I believe they are just extrinsic motivations at best or coercion at worst, never addressing any real issues. I feel pressure to give and grade homework assignments even though I believe that graded homework does not actually correlate with comprehension. I feel pressure to make sure my students are on task 100 percent of the time, even though I don’t believe that being on task does not automatically mean something is being learned. I believe that sometimes being off task, whether that means addressing other issues facing students or simply taking a break, is more beneficial to the long-term productivity of the class than making sure 100 percent of the time is used for academic activities.

It all makes me feel like I am weird.

Sometimes I  wonder when it all will end, when that day will come where I am told that I am just too weird to belong here.

How Do I Get an “A” in Your Class?… Or How Failing Made Me a Better Teacher

It’s happened again. I have been accused of not teaching, by a student. It’s not that this particular student blatantly raised a voice during class and shouted, “You never teach us anything,” but it started with a couple of innocent statements.

“I think it would be better if you gave us notes.”

“Can you go over an example of an ‘A’ questions?”

“How do I get an ‘A’ in your class?”

The problem I have with all of these statements, no matter what the circumstances are surrounding them, is that they come from a mindset that I believe has infected education on far too many levels. Students come into my class operating on a training, recall, example laden mentality. The expectation from these students is that I will present the material as it will appear on assessments, and it is their responsibility to memorize the material presented, and the material will be identical. There is a subset of students, parents, administrators, and even the general public, that believe this is what education should be.

How does that happen? How did we get to a place in society where it is thought that education is the same as memorizing tasks?

Schools, both high schools and colleges, are under tremendous pressure to ensure students graduate. Graduation rates affect funding levels for schools. The higher percentage of students that pass the more money a school receives, or is less likely to lose.  If the graduation rate falls at my school, it will be endanger of losing funding. In addition, standards for graduation keep increasing, creating a perfect milieu for grade inflation.

Ahhh….grade inflation. That concept is not new. It has been the bane of education since the existence of grades. As long as there has been no standard definition of an “A” people have blamed others for inflating grades. But the idea of an inflated grade wouldn’t exist without someone finding out that the student who had that inflated “A” really wasn’t that smart. For that, we can blame employers, admissions departments, scholarships, and even teachers.

When people in authority use generic measurements, a GPA or transcript for example, as a gauge of intelligence it invites sympathetic teachers to inflate grades. We are to the point in society that if I were to truly hold a student accountable for mastery of a concept such as parabolic functions, it could represent that student’s ability to obtain a low skill job in the service industry. To me, that represents my incentive to make my class as easy as possible to pass, because I don’t want to be the person who tries to say with a straight face, “I’m sorry, but you can’t have a job bagging groceries because you cannot complete the square to find the vertex of a quadratic function in standard form.” (This is not meant to be an insult to grocery baggers of which I really appreciate the good ones. The statement was  there to try and point out the futility of connecting arbitrary education with work preparedness.) Every employer that has said a job applicant has had to have a high school diploma, without a thought as to what that student was subjected to learning, using a high school diploma as a rudimentary haphazard sorting device, causes an increase of grade inflation. It is because employers like that exist that my class is easy to pass.

But it’s not just low skill service jobs that use GPAs and transcripts as lazy sorting devices. Colleges and scholarships do so as well. Maybe they look beyond just obtaining a high school diploma and focus on certain classes and certain grades, but the concept is the same. When I have a student who is very capable of being a nurse, but they are encouraged to take Pre-Calculus because that is what is required of the college’s nursing program, I am incentivezed to make getting a decent grade relatively easy. I wonder how many doctors, not to mention nurses, could tell me what a conic section is, let alone describe the relationship of the sum and difference between foci that generates the different conic sections. The college won’t really care what she knows in regards to Pre-Calculus, only that the class shows up on her transcript with a certain grade by it.  As long as I have her prepared to take her one math class in college from the professor who is under pressure to make sure she passes, I feel like I have done my job. These students know the game of gatekeeping that is goes on at the different levels of education. It is why I try to make it relatively easy to get a “B” in my class. It might take dedication and work, but it is achievable by nearly all students who have a mediocre grasp of concepts learned in previous classes.

I make sure that “B” is achievable because anything less than a “B” must be justified. No one wants their child be the student that struggles, but I cannot assign a grade below a “B” without being able to document the behavior the student demonstrated that led to the low grade. I have to document how I tried to correct those behaviors. I have document all the interventions I tried for the student. I have never, NEVER, been asked to justify why a student has an “A.” By making a “B” relatively easy, I can defend my low grades with simple work ethic defenses and lack of prerequisite knowledge statements. (Those are legitimate issues, it just makes the administration of my class easier to have most students around a “B”.)

So far I have mentioned the money involved in education through the application of graduation rates  impacting a schools’ funding. I have also discussed the societal pressures to obtain a high school diploma or take certain class only for the label, without any regard to the content of those classes. These lead me, and probably other teachers, to ultimately reduce the rigor of their classes.

However, there is one other influence that shapes education into memorization. In my education classes about assessment in college we covered the concept of test validity. We were taught that for a test to be valid the material on the test must be explicitly taught. If the test material is not explicitly taught then the test is invalid. This was then interpreted as meaning teach what is on the test, though never said in that manner.  In class we provide students with every example they might see, with all the information that might be around, we provide study guides and review sheets, we play review games, and then we give a test. When students do well we congratulate ourselves and think our students are all above average. When they do poorly we point out all the places in the study guides or homework examples where the information was located. Even though we so often trumpet the mantra of, “don’t teach to the test,” we don’t listen to ourselves.

This is what my education was. When I entered college back in the fall of 2001, I had every indication that I should be successful. I had tested into the gifted program in elementary, I was accelerated in math in junior high, I had never placed below the 93rd percentile on any standardized test (Iowa Basics, ASVAB, PSAT, ACT), I took AP classes in high school for weighted grades and finished with above a 4.0 GPA. I finished my freshman year of college with nearly a 4.0 GPA, with a little struggle in the spring semester that I simply attributed to college being more difficult.

My sophomore year it all fell apart. I was failing classes. I dropped classes in a desperate attempt to salvage my grades in the remaining classes. I let the funk infect every aspect of my life. It ruined friendships and jobs. To this day I am not comfortable talking about my failure. Sure, I can mention it happened, but mentioning that failing happened is very different that coming to grips with the reality that my self-identity was a complete and utter lie. I visited depths of personal hell that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. (Here is a link that describes it better than I can.)

I can remember sitting in classes, trying to take a test, and feeling like it was gibberish on the page in front of me. It’s the first time I can ever recall thinking, “He never taught this!”

Slowly, I started to develop the work ethic necessary to pass during the second semester of my sophomore year, but it was still an emotional period of my life. I still remember one of my moments of clarity during my embitterment. I went to pick up a quiz from our Quantitative Analysis professor. I had worked so hard for this quiz, I had put in so much effort trying to understand the examples and making sure the extra homework problems were correct and figuring out ways to evaluate them myself, but I still lacked confidence and was nervous. I got the quiz back and was ecstatic that it was a good grade. As I examined the work, I noticed one of the problems that I got correct was one that he had never covered in class. I let out a very loud, audible, “I got this right and he never even taught us this!” in front of his office door.

That’s the moment I considered a turning point in my college education. (I managed to finish with a 3.43 GPA after a semester on academic probation.) It’s when I realized the amount of work authentic learning requires. But it’s not the quantity of work learning takes, but the quality of the work that leads to success. I learned that I needed to generalize better.

When I was in high school I bore the label of being one of the smart students. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that it wasn’t that my GPA was any higher than my peers, it was that I had to work less than them to achieve it. My education amounted to me watching my teacher do some examples, easily memorizing them, and regurgitating them on a test. I was doing an academic binge and purge. Eventually it caught up to me. I never learned how to effectively learn, all I had ever done was memorized and thought I was a good learner. I even identified myself as a quick learner on job application when I should have been saying, “I am a really good at memorizing repetitive tasks, so I will be the perfect employee for Burger King.” Since I have become a teacher I have started to notice that several of my students share that mindset.

Unfortunately I feel and obligation to ensure that my students don’t feel that false sense of security. I don’t want a student to go through what I did. I can’t live with the thought of students who would leave my class thinking it would be easy, then fail their next math class. And that motivation, probably one of the earliest I ever adopted, has shaped my class in two distinct ways.

The first way my failure impacted my classes is that I have jumped on the teach less bandwagon. Teach less, be less helpful, productive struggle, productive stupidity, there are a plethora of blog posts, editorials, and even a few journal articles about the concept. Basically, it boils down to the idea that if I teach every possible example I have done all the thinking for my students. This is bad because then students never learn to think for themselves. From a progressive standpoint, I would say my students are discovering, and from a traditionalist view I probably have just gotten good scaffolding. But the point is the same, I lead kids, I prompt kids, but I never explain explicitly every step.

The second way that my failure impacted my class is on my assessments. Several of my students who are used to getting an “A” in class are undergoing a period of adjustment. They have trouble because they were me in high school, smart, but relying on the teachers to do all the thinking for them. I have modified my assessments so that questions that will warrant an “A” are never explicitly covered in class. I have covered concepts, but not specific examples. I am trying to use the training aspects of school to train my students to be prepared to answer unfamiliar questions.  I was working with a student after school last year on a quiz that she missed and the story almost perfectly illustrates the thinking that I am trying to avoid.

She was having trouble on the “A” question. “I don’t know what to do!”

I responded by saying, “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“I’ve read the problem and it doesn’t look like any of the examples we’ve done in class. I tried to match the work to the problem like______(I forgot the one she mentioned, but it was about radians), but it doesn’t make any sense”

For years I had been trying to describe the point of not covering “A” questions in class, and now it made perfect sense. She read the problem on a surface level and scanned her memory for similar problems. She really didn’t comprehend that she needed to dissect the problem and pick out the concepts she knew and then apply those concepts to an unfamiliar question.

As I prompted her through the idea asking, “Do you know what this means?” over and over again, it finally seemed to click. She finally realized that she knew everything that was there.

I can’t prepare my students for every conceivable test question that might appear on an end of course exam, ACT, SAT, or whatever. So I purposely under prepare my students for my tests. When they grasp being under prepared, then they are really prepared for the tests they will have to take when I’m not around. When they embrace the mindset that comes with being under prepared, they will succeed in my class.

That’s how you get an “A” in my classroom.

#iwishmystudentsknew

Thanks to the Twitter I have recently learned about a phenomenon that began last spring. What I discovered, thanks to this post, was the movement around #iwishmyteacherknew. In an abbreviated nutshell, #iwishmyteacherknew started when a self-described “suburban girl” started teaching in a poverty school and wanted to try to better understand and empathize with the realities of her students. (Not original, but a great sentiment that I wish all teachers would have.) It went nasty when unedited student responses, in the student’s handwriting, showed up on Twitter and later were published into a book. Nothing like using the vulnerability and trust a student has to make a family’s struggle widely known, and then profit from it.

But I need to keep myself focused here. I thought it was an interesting idea and was wondering if there were any #iwishmystudentsknew out there so that students could better understand the peculiar manners and methods of their teachers. (This might be a high school thing coming out in me, as I don’t know how many elementary kids could comprehend the different experiences, or, would honestly care.) Unfortunately, #iwishmystudentsknew was already occupied with a collection of generic uplifting messages that sound like they were taken from pamphlets in the guidance counselors office or statements about the self-pitying martyred teacher. Everything was either, “You’re so amazing and you can achieve anything,” or , “I’ve worked 18 hours this weekend.”

I hope that I can help reinvent #iwishmystudentknew into a place where students can discover the experiences that make their teachers unique. Just as understanding my students backgrounds can make me a more effective teacher, I hope that if my students understand me it will make them more effective students.

So, without further delay, here is a list of experience that has shaped my teaching experiences. They should be in relative chronological order.

  1. I nearly flunked out of college. Seriously. Fall semester 2002, academic probation.
  2. I walked out on student teaching, and almost never came back. That’s right, in the middle of a class…I…just…left.
  3. I taught in an alternative school that housed several gang members. This was a big culture shock.
  4. I realized I could “do” math, but didn’t understand math. I kept answering questions with, “That’s just the way it is.
  5. I took a graduate History class. Really made me examine what I considered knowledge. Also, first time I experienced a class without the “this is stupid” cloud of apathy lingering.
  6. I found out several of my students were being put into remedial math after high school. That’s kind of humiliating.
  7. I admitted to several students that I had no idea what I was doing. Who’s ready to watch their teacher have a nervous breakdown?
  8. I became obsessed with why we forget things. Because if there is no point in remembering what we learned that means school is basically a pris…errr, warehouse for adolescents.
  9. I started to understand the power of being under prepared. I actually kind of wing it during class, but I probably shouldn’t admit that.
  10. I put around 20% of my students in summer school. OBEY ME OR I WILL FLUNK YOU!!! I’M TRYING TO TEACH YOU TO BE A RESPONSIBLE MEMBER OF SOCIETY!!!
  11. I started to realize how much many of my students remind me of myself. Holy Regret Batman!
  12. I personally watched a student go through anxiety over grades. Try blubbering bawling in front of your teacher sometime. Not that cute little sniffle stuff. I mean runny, snotty nose, disgusting bawling.
  13. I learned how to care about my students. I care, I really care. I also learned why that is so important.
  14. I realized that I am an introverted teacher. It can really be a draining experience for me. Like, litereally.
  15. I realized authentic learning is really, really disorganized and messy. If it’s easy, it isn’t learning.
  16. I decided that lectures suck. If lectures are so great why not just replace me with KHAAAANNNNNNNN!!!!!
  17. I decided that I would do the right thing, regardless of how it would effect my job security. I guess “Ineffective” isn’t a good thing.
  18. I decided to break the typical social contract found in schools. I guess I got tired of teaching obedience.
  19. I think some students like the obedience aspect of schools. That last one really stings.

Well, there’s the list of unique experiences that have shaped who I am as a teacher. I’m sure there’s more, but it’s what I could come up with off the top of my head. I plan on elaborating on these more. Are there any you would like me to begin with?

Generating a Genuine Mathematical Discussion

One of the most difficult tasks of a math teacher is fostering an authentic discussion about math. Every now and then it comes back momentarily in small groups, but I have trouble generating a real math discussion. I know there ideas out there in the internet ether, but I have found that as long as students are given prompting worksheets, think-pair-shares, they will always want to know what answers to put down so that they get the highest grade. When I ask a class to discuss for the sake of discussion, most of students will give me, at best, lip service, since the discussion won’t have any immediate impact on their grades.

I want my students to discuss math. I want them to discuss math because it is the most effective form of mathematical learning that I have encountered. In math teacher land there is often debate about finding the right balance between practicing procedural fluency and developing conceptual understanding. The procedural fluency camp usually follows a dogma of basic skills and will lament the “fuzzy” math of the 1980s and 1990s. The conceptualists worry about cookbook math and creating math zombies. Myself, I lean towards the conceptualist. However, I do rely on a lot of drill and kill during class. Procedures are great for immediate impact, but if I want long-term, flexible learning, I need to have high quality discussions.

In the past I have had one class where discussion has flourished. That has been my Caclulus I class. My Calc classes have always been small and have always been with students that I have had in previous classes. Because of this familiarity, I was able to make a bargain with my Calc I students. I would give up my power, in the form of grades, if they would give up their expectation of the reliance on examples. It worked beautifully for three years. There was absolutely no structure to the learning. When we would learn, we would just open the book and start reading and working. Some days math didn’t happen because, well, we didn’t want to. Some days we talked about other stuff, like college essays or homework assignments from other classes. Instead of viewing me as the authoritarian, or even authoritative teacher, my Calc students started to view me as more of first among equals, as more of a peer with extra experience. So, when we decided to math we did it because we wanted to, not because we had to.

Anything that was learned in that environment I really feel is more impactful, more powerful, and more portable than what is learned in a regular classroom. There is one story that I can think of that perfectly illustrates what I mean.

A student in Pre-Calc asks me, “Did you hear about Alex?” (Former Calc I student, name changed, who was then a freshman in college.)

“Umm….no. What happened?”

“He failed his Calc quiz.”

“Okay.” (I really think this student wanted me to make some sort scene in class, but I didn’t. Inside though, I was screaming WTF?!!!)

While my Calc I class is not for college credit or an AP class, I feel that I do enough that Calc I should be mostly review for my students when they get to college. Fortunately I ran into Alex around Christmas break and I felt compelled to ask about the failed quiz.

“So, I hear you failed one of your first quizzes.”

“Yeah, that was stupid. The quiz was about finding derivatives using the limit process, but I just used the power reduction rule.”

“Okay, whew. I was worried that I had really screwed up, but really it is about your inability to read directions.”

“Yeah. I met with the professor during his office hours and talked to him. I explained what happened and then talked to him about what I should be doing.”

It was reassuring to hear that he didn’t ask for extra credit, to redo the quiz, or fix his mistakes. He felt comfortable enough with the math I had taught him to go discuss it with his professor. Not only did he feel comfortable enough with math to discuss math, and not just demonstrate procedures, he felt that his knowledge granted him the authority to approach the professor. (I have wondered if this is a skill I was implicitly teaching during Calc and does it apply to subjects outside of math.)

That is what I want out of my Calc class, but this year my Calc and Pre-Calc classes are combined. I have figured out how to approach the topics so that I can teach both groups without giving too much subject material up, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to grade my Calc students compared to the Pre-Calc students. My Calc students know what my Calc classes in the past were like and have been wondering if they would get the grading leniency that I have shown in the past. I kept telling them I wasn’t sure, since they will be covering the same material as the Pre-Calc students.

This past Friday I gave my first quiz. I have already noticed a couple of interactions with my Calc I students that make them different than most of the Pre-Calc kids, but when the quiz was given they were the last ones working. Their approach to the problems were different than all but a few of the Pre-Calc students. Everything about how Friday went tells me that they are ready for how I run Calc I, but I know I can’t run my Pre-Calc class of 23 like I have run my Calc classes in the past.

I don’t know what to do.