Having a Nervous Breakdown

During my second year of teaching Calculus I had a nervous breakdown in front of my students. I can’t remember exactly what topic I was trying to explain, I think it was the idea behind the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, but I’m not sure. What I do remember was the feeling and how it started.

I was going over some procedure and explaining how to get the correct answer and one of the students asked me a simple question.

“Why did you do that?”

As soon as I thought about it I felt the sinking feeling of not knowing why. I hate that and have talked about it before. This time though, I didn’t respond with a command of just shut up and do the problem, and I did this for a couple of reasons. One, I was going through some graduate school classes that was completely rearranging my concept of knowledge. Two, the class consisted of only two students which had allowed me to develop more of a personal relationship than is typically involved in a classroom.

When I couldn’t explain the mathy stuff to my students beyond a just mimic me response, I stopped teaching. I literally stopped teaching and just sat there in class. After a few minutes I admitted that I had no idea what I was doing. It is blatantly obvious to most people that math that is used in school isn’t like math in reality, so if I can’t even explain what is happening, what’s the point of the entire endeavor?

I imagine that everyone has been in a class where they have thought to themselves, that the teacher has no clue what is going on, but I can’t imagine many people being in a class where the teacher came in on day one and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing…so, let’s get started.” While it wasn’t day one, that was essentially what I was doing in front of my students, admitting that I am clueless.

If I did that in class today I wonder how my students would respond? I fear they would use it as a justification to tune me out more than many of them already do. (He doesn’t know what’s going on why should I bother.) I fear that they would use it as a justification to complain about grades. (How can he give me a C when he doesn’t understand the stuff himself?) But when I admitted my cluelessness to these two Calculus students they didn’t pounce at the opportunity to take control of the class. I was met with empathy and sympathy, and it immediately transformed the class dynamic. No matter how comfortable I had felt with students in the past it was always centered around a me-them type relationship, but from my meltdown to the rest of the year, class took on a more of an us mentality. It was still a classroom, and I still had more mathematical knowledge than them, but I didn’t feel like the dispenser and controller of knowledge anymore. It felt more like I was talking with them rather than talking at them, as if we were exploring together.

What I learned from that moment on was that my classroom needs to be a place where vulnerability is acceptable, though I think I’ve lost that.  We finished out the rest of the year learning Calculus together. Some days were smooth, some days were messy, but it always felt as if it was together. Sometimes we talked about a concept for the entire period with no math written. Some days we worked on procedures from the book. Some days we did other non-math related stuff and embraced the human element of school. Looking back on the experience, it was probably the first time that I felt like authentic learning was occurring in my classroom and was finally finding a vision of what I want education to be.

That moment became the impetus that lead to what I consider the best two years of teaching in my life. Every class seemed to develop some sense of supportive community. I felt free to experiment with ideas and push the limits of my students. Unfortunately I have watched that environment whittle away that past three years. Why don’t I have that accepting, vulnerable, safe, welcoming classroom centered around togetherness? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know much has changed over the past three years. My schedule changed, students have changed, I have changed, administration has changed, technology has changed, testing has changed, all of this leaving me more disillusioned than I have been in a long time. Maybe I have to have one of those coming to Jesus type moments like I did way back in 2011 when I had a nervous breakdown. I don’t know.

All I know for certain is that right now, there are way more days that I leave work unfilled, like my presence at school has served no purpose. I was under no assumption that everyday would be a rewarding bed of roses when I started this profession, but I am tired of feeling like a piece of shit at the end of nearly every day.

What I Learned About Knowledge From Dropping Out of Grad School

After moving to Ohio I found myself without a full-time job. I even had a little difficulty getting substituting positions just because the system was so different from that in Minnesota, and I didn’t find the area schools very helpful, with the exception of the secretaries at Upper Sandusky High School. On a complete side note, ODE was not helpful at all with getting my license transferred. That’s not really important, but it does give me another reason to complain about ODE.

I decided that since I was just substitute teaching I would trying applying to a graduate school program. I ended up choosing the History program at BGSU because of it’s location and the timing of the classes. My first couple of times in a graduate seminar I was a little lost. It didn’t represent anything like I was used to. I could best describe the setting as almost like being in a book club. We had assigned reading, and then we discussed the reading.

Admittedly, I was lost, and also a little star-struck, since my first professor I had instantly recognized from History Detectives.

I had read the book, but the discussion didn’t have the recall questions I was used to answering. I kept waiting for the professor to ask questions that would allow me to demonstrate that I had read the book, that I could show my classmates my superior intellect. But it never happened. He only kept asking these, “Why did the author use this,” or “What did you think about this,” kind of questions. The only time I had ever answered opinion questions throughout my educational experience, it was always a, “Yes, I liked it,” type of question. I asked for advice from some of my classmates and was informed that as long as I speak up a couple of times during class it would be fine. That really didn’t help since I didn’t know how to voice a comment during class without the fear of sounding stupid.

Part of the class involved reading a book individually and then presenting it to the class. I had chosen this book about the Dust Bowl. As I began rambling through my summary of the book I felt all those typical feelings of anxiety that comes when having to present in front of an authority figure. I first noticed the ubiquitous amounts of head nods as my report of the book was heavy on the summary, but light on analysis. I then mentioned something about the failure of the Russians to adapt corn to their climate, and an ensuing drought there, but I worded it as a question. When I looked at my professor he hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. This made me feel uneasy, so I kind of stumbled through the conclusion of my presentation and mentioned the American ethos.

Then the questions began.

I don’t remember any of the specific questions, but I do remember feeling caught off guard, especially the questions from the professor. There are two types of teacher questions. The first type is the one almost everyone is familiar with, the checking for comprehension question, the rhetorical question. Teachers already know the answer to these questions, we are only asking students to see if they know the answer as well. The second type of question is what I call a legitimate question. A legitimate question acknowledges the limitations of the questioner, and transfers authority and power to those being asked, and that’s what made it so scary for me.

It seems to me that most students seek affirmation of their correctness from the teacher, without much thought as to why something is correct. I see this all the time students volunteer an answer to a question and want to know if it is correct, but cannot explain how they came to their conclusion. Many times they will answer questions with an upward inflection in their voice, as if their answer is a question itself. Usually to save time, teachers, including myself, will either confirm or deny the educated guess from the students. This is a problem because the students’ concept of knowledge and truth is based upon affirmation of the authority figure.

Which is why my professor threw me for a loop when he asked me a legitimate question about the American ethos. He wanted to know more about the American ethos that the author was discussing, but he wasn’t testing me to make sure I read the book, he really wanted to know and was dependent upon me to provide him with information. Suddenly, I was an authority figure over my professor controlling his access to Worster’s paradigm of American ethos. My struggle happened because I had never developed the executive function necessary to regulate my own concept of knowledge. My definition of knowledge was like so many of my students’, dependent upon the affirmation of the teacher.

As the year progressed in the graduate course, I became more comfortable and started to understand how authoritative knowledge is formed. It started to impact my concept of mathematics and my concept of teaching. I have written about my struggles in school, whether it be in the classroom or as a teacher, but this post is ultimately about how a History class changed how I think about knowledge and power.

I started successfully adapting to History class when I started justifying my statements in class. If I was going to offer a comment I made sure I had a passage from the book or some other source ready to provide evidence. That way, no matter how my professor or classmates might respond I could reply with the proof of my statement. When I started to reflect upon the math I was teaching I became appalled at how much of my mathematical knowledge rested not on proof of knowledge, but how much had simply been affirmed by authority figures. I had just memorized many correct answers and procedures. I knew I was right because I was told I was right, and it showed in my teaching.

My teaching during the first four years of my career could be summed up as regurgitation. In more uncouth terms, it was like I was telling my students, “Here is the shit I had to learn in school, now it’s your turn.” Okay, maybe I hid behind some platitudes about critical thinking, or 21st century skills, but my whole concept of school had nothing to do with knowledge.

That’s how dropping out of grad school educated me. (I couldn’t handle the work load of full-time work, becoming a parent, and watching other areas of my life go to crap.) It enlightened me to the idea that knowledge and truth is not something that is owned by teachers. They try to make sense of the world and then share their understanding with us, but they do not  create and control knowledge. Yes, teachers are usually more of an expert in their fields than their students, but they control truth. Real power comes from being able to make sense of the knowledge around you independent of any other people. It made me feel like so much of my formal education was a waste.

School as we know it, isn’t set up to achieve knowledge. Authentic learning comes in fits and spurts, and is not easily confined to weekly assessments and standardized testing. Grades and test scores do not necessarily accompany knowledge. One of the proudest moments I have ever felt as a teacher was when a student remarked that he achieved a 96 on an economics test at the local community college. (I had taught economics to him in high school, a class I didn’t feel qualified to teach.) The grade wasn’t what made me proud, but what he said next, “I know it is a good grade, but I don’t feel like I really know anything. I would rather have an 80, but actual know something.” After years of classes with me it was finally clicking for him. Grades can make us delusional to our own abilities.

I was delusional. I graduated with honors from both high school and college, but struggled to explain Algebra I concepts. I essentially was exactly the same person that I was in junior high. I had never learned or mastered any academic subject. The only thing I had ever mastered was how to put down the right answers on tests to appease my teachers. And I didn’t realize this until I was 26.

Are high school students capable of mastering knowledge? I believe the answer is yes, but it is a near impossibility under the lock step current system we have. The only time I feel like I have had success convincing students the merits of mastery, rather than the merits of grades, have been in small homogeneous classes, or in regular after school sessions. Mastery of knowledge will lead to confidence.

Grade motivated students will eventually be exposed, one way or another. When smart students become motivated by grades they become complacent. Complacent students become stressed when pressed about their knowledge. Complacency breeds the anxiety that will eventually breed perpetual underachievement.

We preach creativity and mastery, but our actions tell students that all we really want from them is the right answers. We are so wrong.

All My Students Are Special

Apparently I work in Lake Wobegon. We were given a sheet with a grade breakdown from the first semester. Removing all the “fluff” electives left slightly over 1500 grades that were given. Of those grades, 733 were between an A- and an A+, and another 535 were between a B+ and B-. In core classes, I work at a school where 82% of the students are above average.

I decided to compare it to my own grades from the first semester. I learned that I am part of the problem, if it is a problem. While I gave out many more B’s than A’s, overall, 79% of my students are above average.

But why give out the summary of grades in the first place? Are they too high? Are we going to be dictated to bell curve the students? There was a statement about making sure we are asking rich questions that align to new standards. So I assume this was directed at the idea that we have average test scores and college placement, but our grades are extremely high. How does this happen? I can think of a couple of possibilities.

These will be skewed in a secondary school direction because that is where I teach.

First, maybe our teachers just don’t have adequate content knowledge. If I have substandard mathematical knowledge, I would have no basis to make judgement decisions on whether students have mastered the subject. I probably would struggle to make meaningful assessments. In spite of what students might think, I don’t really subscribe to this idea. It’s been awhile since I have met a teacher who I think just doesn’t know the subject.

Second, maybe our teachers match their criteria for success based upon personal experience. Maybe the experience of our teachers have taught them valuable lessons about work ethic, consequently the criteria for success in their classes, possibly made subconsciously, has consisted largely of assessments that allow students to demonstrate work ethic. Maybe our students have above average work ethic. This is somewhat true for me, but I actually have set up a system that only implicitly rewards work ethic. Work, on it’s own doesn’t get rewarded, however, if that work improves understanding and comprehension, then there will be a reward.

Third, and I hate to think how much it influences me, is the pressure to make sure there are equal outcomes. Right now, if a student fails my class and then complains, it isn’t the student that has to prove that the teacher made a mistake by demonstrating mastery of content. If a student fails, I have to justify the grade. When students get good grades though, A’s and B’s, and even C’s occasionally, no questions are asked. When that “A” student comes back with an ACT score of 16 we just write it off as test anxiety, which apparently has almost reached epidemic proportions. That ultimately stems from the pressure to make sure that learning opportunities are accessible to all.

But at some point accessible to all somehow morphed into everyone gets the same grade. Equal opportunity, which I don’t think anyone would ever be against, simply means everyone gets a chance, it doesn’t ensure everyone will succeed. It all sounds great until it is you or your kid that fails. Maybe the material wasn’t presented correctly. Maybe the teacher didn’t provide the right resources. Maybe there is some sort of disability that prevented content going to long-term memory. The point is this, when a student comes home with a report card, we ask what’s on it and if it’s A’s and B’s we congratulate the student and move on with our lives. If that report card has poor grades, the inquisition begins, with everyone looking to blame someone, teachers blame students and parents, parents blame students and teachers, students blame everyone.

Considering how utterly useless my subject is to most people, I find it easier to devise a grading criteria that will keep everyone happy. Students get the grades that will keep them scholarship eligible and parents off their backs. I get to set a standard that makes an “A” a token achievement of mathematical understanding, yet passing my class takes minimal effort. Sure, this is a very cynical take on grades, but it is an accurate description. I could make my grades really be reflective of mathematical knowledge, but I don’t think students would want that, nor would parents and administrators want the outcomes that would ensue.

Besides, if I really was concerned with mathematical knowledge, grades are a terrible motivator.

Best to keep living “A” lie and move on with our lives.