Winging It

I hate how time dictates the school day. I hate how we expect drastically different students to learn the same material, at the same age, at the same time of day, and even at the same pace. Sure some have drank the differentiation Kool-aid, but we haven’t yet differentiated high school as a whole. Same graduation requirements, same times, everything is the same.

From my experience, the majority of teaching takes the form of presentation of material, followed by some guided structure with the teacher, and then some independent time for the students to practice. This is the typical I do, We do, You do approach to education. When I prepared for this approach I would carefully think out my presentations. They wouldn’t be flashy, but I would take a substantial time to think about how I was going to talk about something, what I wanted students to notice, and what examples I want students to use. My goal wasn’t to entertain, but it was my goal to make the information clear. Though there are supporters of the entertainment aspect of education.

Are you not entertained?! When I used to show that to students they would remark that the class looks fun, that he makes the subject matter exciting. However, at the end of his courses, the attendance rates and failure rates were similar to other classes. So if the results were the same, what is the point of all that prep work to make the presentations exciting?

Maybe my presentations weren’t nearly as entertaining, but at least I was being clear on what I want accomplished. I started class telling the students what we’re going to do today. I wrote up clear definitions and gave clear examples with multiple steps shown. But the goal of education should be to create students with the ability to think, which involves a whole host of issues. Part of the problem with using clearly stated goals is that novice learners will only focus on the goals, most likely bypassing interesting and important connections along the way. Yes, I know that that study is talking about reading, but from my experience students do that with just about everything they do.

To put it another way, when I was presenting mathematical information I was covering information that is part of a complex tapestry of mathematics. However, my students only take in minor details, basically ignoring as much of my voice as they could, grasping for the bare minimum structure to be memorized so that they can correctly answer test questions. This picture eloquently summarizes what I think is going on in the journey from my mind to their minds, even though it really is about rubrics.

It is a visual representation of why so many of my students seem to think math is just a disjointed collection of random facts and procedures. When I thoroughly thought out my presentations, I made sure to highlight those red dots of importance, but in my mind those dots are just part of the whole picture. My students just pick up on the red dots though, which I often referred to them Charlie Browning me. My voice was the blue, my examples were the red, they copied the examples and heard this.

My good compliant complacent students were Charlie Brown. The had the appearance of listening, but really were just quietly searching out those red dots, those examples and steps to let them solve the next math question. My favorite are the students like Patty though. At least they weren’t pretending to care, yet an alarming amount of them are on the honor roll. They have internalized the process of hunting out those red dots, be it from examples in books, notes, online, or asking their friends, “How to do this?” They are obsessed with the how’s, but not the why’s?

To help try and combat this I changed my presentations. Instead of carefully planning out every individual step with concise, clear objectives, I started to wing it in class. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t lesson plan, it just means that my plans were a rough outline, a framework, that was then filled by the organic discussion in class. My goal was to make sure the students wouldn’t become fixated on the red dots. When I would be planning my presentations I would pick a topic, think of how it connected to the previous topics, and then try and use student questions and ideas to drive most of the presentation. When I know my students and my content I find this to be an enlightening experience. They start to finally see some of that blue background behind the red dots.

However, it does have a couple large drawbacks. It did give class a more organic feel, but students crave the conditioning that they have been experiencing for years and years. Charlie Browning is most prevalent in my honor roll students because it has allowed them to get success in the past, at least in terms of grades, with the least amount of mental effort. For most of my students, it takes a significant amount of time to overcome that conditioning, and some, unfortunately, never will.

It also gives the appearance that I am unprepared, but for me, it changed the hierarchy of my teaching prep. When I plan, I start with content from a teaching viewpoint, then worry about presentation and pacing, then worry about assessments, then worry about supporting activities, then worry about individual students. My ever changing schedule the past eight years has meant that I feel like I am perpetually stuck in my first hierarchy of teacher needs, focusing on content.

I guess I forever will be a rookie.

I Used to Teach Algebra I

I used to teach Algebra I. Over time I had developed some eccentricities that matched my personality, and made my classroom fairly efficient. My current seniors are the last students that had me for Algebra I, and when they talk about it, often they will mention the movies they got to watch. HOLY LABEL MAKER BATMAN! I don’t want to give the impression that all we did was watch movies though. When most people recollect their math class experience the imagine, something like this.

And that’s what my class was like, for the majority of time. It started with some sort of homework review, introduction of new material, and then I would release the students to work on their assignment with roughly 10 to 20 minutes of class left, very much following the, “I do, we do, you do.” This wasn’t everyday, but it was the vast majority of them.

The last time I taught Algebra I though, it was different. I would simply start class by presenting the students with a question that would be familiar to them. Either something from the previous day or something that they had been taught the previous year. I had them show me their work on whiteboards right there so that I could give them feedback right there, instead of waiting until the next day.

This worked for me because of two reasons.

The first, and most important was consistency. The last time I taught Algebra I it was my fifth consecutive year teaching the class. With the exception of open enroll students, the pipeline was from the same teacher, so I knew what to expect in terms of prerequisite capabilities. The standards were the same, the state testing was the same. Teacher evaluations were the same. Utilization of special education resources were the same. All of the consistency meant that I taught using my schema, allowing me to devote every ounce of my working memory and fluid intelligence to provide feedback for my students. I think it takes me five years of teaching consistency to be a good teacher with a curriculum. It really makes a cycle; master curriculum to teach (this is different that getting answers to tests); find a good sequence of topics; properly pace the topics to align with state testing; analyze assessment choices; and then finally be an effective teacher.

Now I said there were two reasons that allowed me to teach Algebra I the way I wanted and I’ve already talked about the consistency of a schedule. The second reason was because of the degree of autonomy I was allowed. Basically, I was told to go teach math, and that was it. As long as math was taught, the how I taught wasn’t nearly that important. So I decided to make my class fit my personality. I dumped activities that seemed to represent more of an obedience (sorry, “on task”) component. I made a promise to my students that I would not have them do any activities that I felt were there solely for busy work. I stopped feeling guilty about providing my students with downtime. Every now and then I found myself mentally fried by the curriculum, especially that first year teaching Pre-Calculus, so I couldn’t imagine how it would be affecting the students, and I didn’t feel guilt acknowledging that I was stressed too.

That manifested itself in that first Pre-Calculus class in a manner where there were several discussions about learning and mastery in general because my students were stuck with a teacher who only a survivor when it came to his math background. Much of the math class was dedicated to trying to understand why things work because I was trying understand why they worked myself. Since I was so comfortable with Algebra I, I would look at student feedback and decide I was happy with where they were for the day, and occasionally notice that there was 10 to 15 minutes of class left. Remembering that I promised that I wouldn’t spend their time with busy work, I used the time to build relationships and share aspects of my life that I found important, and yes, that might manifest itself as movies. As my relationships with my students improved I noticed that learning became more natural, and more productive.

Then, rather suddenly it all changed. First, my schedule was altered, Algebra I, the class that I was so good with, was taken away going into my sixth year at my current school. This is what my schedule has been since then.

Year 1 – Algebra I, Geometry, Calculus I, 6th Grade math aide, junior high lunch duty, senior class adivisor

Year 2 – Algebra I, Geometry, Calculus I, junior high lunch duty

Year 3 – Algebra I, World History, Calculus I, Economics, Geography

Year 4 – Algebra I, World History, Economics, Geography, Pre-Calculus

Year 5 – Algebra I, Algbera II, Pre-Calculus, Calculus I, Math Intervention, Personal Business and Finance Math, senior class adivisor

Year 6 – Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Personal Business and Finance Math, Statistics

Year 7 – Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Statistics, junior high study hall/math intervention

Year 8 – 8th Grade Math, Geometry, combined Pre-Calc/Calc I

I was still excited to teach because I felt comfortable teaching how I wanted to, I still had that autonomy.  So I showed up the first day during year 6 with a stack of whiteboards, enthusiastic about how having the students work in class impacted the outcomes, only to be crushed when I shared that philosophy with the administration and that’s not how you should teach. I was pressed to defend myself (in writing) and referred to the experts at the local educational service center. I was even questioned about going out of order in the textbook.

Then came the day, during the first week of school, when I lost one of my Algebra II classes to a fundraiser meeting that came with no notice. I decided to take the opportunity to spend some significant time with the other Algebra II class not working on math, but building relationships that would make the rest of the year more productive and efficient. Of course, that would be the day that I got a walk through, my first experience with a “gotcha” moment, and was proceeded to be lectured about wasted time. I was told that this wasn’t an official walk through, but just checking to make sure I am using my time wisely.

In my Personal Business and Finance Math, another class that I was new to, I showed a video to the students about rationalization, and it just didn’t sink in. YouTube made the recommendation to show this Berenstain Bears video, so I tried it. It went perfect, the kids embraced the dorkiness of being high school students watching kids cartoons, and they seemed to grasp the concept of rationalization. But one of those educational service center experts walked by and I was later lectured on the inappropriateness of showing a cartoon, and then had to provide a written rationale for my choice.

Then came the day I gave a problem in Pre-Calculus that got me in trouble. We had spent weeks working on trig functions, especially transformations of trig graphs. I gave the students a problem in a worksheet that asked them to do the reverse, given a set of points, find a trig function. I was called down to the office and was lectured about how students aren’t capable to performing this task without being explicitly being shown how to do it first. It just goes on and on.

Novice learners were timed on problems to see how fast they could complete them.

I give out too many A’s.

No one learns anything in your class.

Students told me they didn’t care, they’re going to get a B.

There needs to be more ways to succeed in your classroom.

It is impossible to learn anything in your class.

You let the students do nothing.

More people would be complaining if the grades were lower.

Students will lie to defend you.

I want to tell them to shut it and punch them in the face.

If I were a student I don’t know what I would be learning.

There needs to be more grades in your class.

I’m not going to do it since it’s not graded.

On top of all those messages I have been receiving, the state has changed the end of year test. We have new standards to deal with. I’ve had to adapt to becoming a full inclusion classroom that doesn’t track students, meaning I have had classrooms with students with IQs in the 80’s have been in classes with gifted students. Now students are being pressured more than ever to get college credits while still in high school. Students and teachers are feeling intense pressure to get the most amount of academic achievement at an ever earlier age.

When we give students messages over and over and over again that they are dumb they start to internalize it and it becomes a self-fulling prophecy. The messages I’ve received the past three years, that my students are lie to me, that all they do is take advantage of me, that all they do is walk all over me, well, I start to internalize that too. So when they come to my class exhausted and stressed, then do not respond to my prodding questions with thought, quit from fatigue during complex tasks, I no longer meet them with sympathy. I just keep going because, well fuck them, I won’t let them take advantage of me anymore. If they are tuning me out it must be because they have already mastered the content. They can fail, their grades aren’t my problem. That’s the teacher I am now.

And here’s the bottom line, in this current environment, I am not the teacher anyone needs. I tried desperately to hold on to a few of my values, but slowly selling out one little piece at a time, bowing to the pressure from administration, students, parents, tests, has made me a bad teacher. I am a bad teacher because I got sucked into the spiral of my own paranoia. Instead of meeting my students fatigue, exhaustion, and confusion with sympathy and grace, I coldly pressed on. As it just became more confusing for them, more of them decided to just quit and I don’t blame them. Why should they stress out over math they won’t need other than to jump through some hoop to get a college degree? They have no incentive to master the topic. As long as they are getting a B or C, they’re good.

As I write this, I keep staring at the information about conic sections on my board that I used in Pre-Calc and thinking over and over to myself, this is not how it should be done. The more I look at it, the more appalled I am. It dumbs down our students and it dumbs down the math. It’s a result of me trying to hold on to three years ago, adapting to my new pressures, but producing an abomination.

That’s not education. If that’s what I am producing it’s time for me to go. I thought I knew what my calling in life was, but if this is all the more I am capable of making, this passion has just turned into a burdensome job, which means I am no good for anybody right now. I’m not teaching. I’m torturing.

I hope that I actually made a difference for a couple students along the way, because right now I shouldn’t be here.

 

 

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.

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.

Is This Where You Want to Be?

When I talk to other teachers about my school compared to theirs I often end up saying that I am so glad that I teach at a small school (30 to 40 kids per grade). Don’t get me wrong, there are perks to a big school. When I scan the #MTBoS, I see really cool things happening, but many times those take place  in larger schools. Usually at larger schools classes are more homogeneous when it comes to academic abilities. It allows the environment to cater towards a somewhat standard mindset. There are times when I dream about having a class of 20 some students who would willingly geek out and fully engage on math with me. I would even like teaching in an environment where students are simply ritualistically compliant, acknowledging the advance math they are learning will have no bearing beyond graduating high school. Unfortunately at a small school we often don’t have the opportunities to homogenize like that. I have had classroom of 11 students where one student had a tested IQ in the low 80’s and another had tested as cognitively gifted (IQ of at least 130 in our district). The unfortunate consequence of this is that I believe that I end up developing far too many strategically compliant students, and I personally detest the mindset of the strategically compliant, mostly because I was one. I personally have witnessed the hell that many of those students will go through, but perhaps I am engaging in one of humanities greatest follies, projecting my own image onto others. I think we do that far too often and I want to confront people when I see them do that, but I don’t because I am way to introverted and don’t feel comfortable without the protection and distance of a computer screen.

But I digress….

Why then do I stay at a small school when there appears to be positives to a larger school environment? It’s because of my introvertism. I fit in a small school environment much better because of my personality, whereas if I would succeed at a larger school it would be in spite of my personality. I once was told, “I get the impression that what happens behind closed doors is different than what I see,” by one of my past administrators. Ummmm…..yup, I don’t think there could be a truer statement. Here’s the thing, I interact with my administrators in a classroom environment for anywhere from 70 minutes to 190 minutes during the year, and because of our current revolving door with the administration it has maxed out at 300 minutes for an entire career. I interact with the majority of my students for a minimum of 16410 minutes, with a few of the students having interaction times as high as 40275 minutes.  I know that my administrators hold my job security in their hands, but I value the opinion of the students more. I really believe that they should have a larger say in the learning environment than the admin and legislatures.

Reflecting on my experiences in high school, I remember not feeling much respect towards the teachers  that treated us like children. When I began college I told myself I would start to think of high school kids differently. When I found myself working with high school students at the local YMCA in college I told myself I would think of them differently once I was student teaching. When I was student teaching I told myself I would think of my high school students in a different light once I graduated and obtained a full-time job. When I obtained a full-time job I told myself that I would think of high school kids differently when I had my own children. Now that I have been a parent for almost six years I have given up. I can’t think of my high school kids differently than I think of my coworkers, and I happened across some research to back that up.

Everyday that I enter a classroom I can’t help but see my students as equals. As long as we are talking about math I probably am superior, but that’s because of my experience with the subject. My authority is dictated by two things: one, my knowledge of the subject I teach, and two, my position as a teacher. The power I derive from knowledge is only confined to the realm of mathematics. When I discuss another topic with my students, they get the opportunity to claim power. But the power I derive from being a teacher is all based upon accepted societal pretense. Which is why I love teaching at a small school. In the thousands upon thousands of minutes I will spend with my students it is almost inevitable that the false power that the pretense of the student-teacher relationship is built upon will be obliterated. Once that power structure of a student-teacher relationship is gone I can truly get to work of education. Students will learn much more from me when they view me as an expert because of my knowledge and not because of my title.

Removing the power structure of the classroom also allows my students and I to separate math ability from character traits. We are able to acknowledge the IQ bridge that might exist between us that hinders instruction, but can guide learning anyway. (I really wished we lived in a society were we could rationally discuss the impact of IQ without shaming.) Obliterating the student-teacher power structure paves the way for students to form an opinion of me as a person aside from their opinion of the subject I teach. It allows me, as a teacher, to do the same for the student. It is why I want students in my class, even though it might not make the most sense for a particular student. It is why I want certain students in my class, even if math isn’t their strength. It is why I feel badly when I say scornful things in class. It is why I have students for whom I feel like I should have done more than teach trig functions of any angle. It is why I think I can have a long term impact on students. It is why I conflicted emotions about taking extracurricular duties. It is what allows me to describe my students as more than grades.

I once had a conversation where I was asked if this is the place I thought I should be.

Does the math instruction suffer in a small school environment under my watch? Probably, sometimes, maybe.

Do I get to have a bigger impact on the kind of person that leaves my classroom compared to a big school? Yes, definitely.

Am I happy here?

I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Perceptions of the Teacher

“I hope my child has an adequate teacher this year.”

I don’t think any parent has ever said such a statement. Maybe a parent would after a child experienced a horrible, bad teacher, but most children probably haven’t experienced a bad teacher. If there were a poll conducted about the qualities of a bad teacher I hypothesize that the responses would be similar. However, if another poll was conducted about qualities of a “good” teacher I think that there would be no consistency in responses, and possibly, if not probably, some contradictions.

A recent blog post discussed the qualities of a teacher, coming to the conclusion that there really is no “perfect” teacher. Every teacher has aspects of the profession for which he or she excels and every teacher has aspects of the profession for which he or she is deficient. I would agree with that axiom.

But if no teacher is perfect, and there is no clear consensus on what a “good” teacher is, then what am I?

I am an amazing, inspiring, life-altering teacher; to a couple of students.

I am a reprehensible, bullying, unethical teacher; to a couple of students.

I am just a teacher, nothing terrible, nothing great; to most students.

What I am not is that amazing teacher, then that reprehensible teacher, then the average teacher. I am all of those things at once because I am perceived by each person I contact multiple times in a single day. My reputation isn’t based upon a single student, a single colleague, or even a single evaluator. It is based upon countless perceptions accumulated over a career. But as we read headlines about how unprepared our high school graduates are for college, our students our falling behind other countries, we need something to blame. Sometimes we blame poverty. Sometimes we blame other nations for testing methods. Sometimes we blame the curriculum. Sometimes we blame the school.

When we blame the schools what often gets blamed are the teachers. What we do then is develop a system to judge the teachers so that we can get rid of the “bad” teachers. I am sure there are terrible teachers out there, those teachers that have completely checked out, that might go through the motions, and they need to find a more inspiring profession. However, when we create that evaluation system to judge our teachers, OTES in my case, we create a system that defines what “good” teaching is, resulting in a complete flip of the idea of there being a broad definition of a “good” teacher.

OTES has a rubric describing what “good” teacher does. But if I accept that there is no agreement on a “good” teacher, that there might even be contradiction, OTES will inherently label some teachers that have as good qualities as “bad” teachers and some teachers with bad qualities as “good” teachers. The perception of “bad” teachers running schools, ruining students, led the bureaucracy to create a definition of good teaching. Then the perception of one evaluator interpreting the bureaucratic perception of a “good” teacher determines a label that follows me through my career. It’s a label that will dictate my job security. It’s a label that will crush or raise my self-esteem. It is a label that will instill me with confidence or rattle my confidence.

As students move through school and interact with many different teachers, many different opinions about each individual student exist. I don’t believe there is any one student that is universally admired by every single teacher that has had a particular student, but imagine a society where one teacher was able to dictate the fate of any one student. One teacher could have the power to label a student, “smart,” “dumb,” “creative,” “lazy,” or any other potential name. Suddenly the purpose of school is not to educate, but rather to appease. But by taking away my labels that is what OTES has done to me.

OTES has diminished the feedback I get from my most important stakeholders, students. No longer does their opinion have sustenance. OTES has made my image beholden of a bureaucracy, and its definition of “good” teaching. No longer is my image dictated by hundreds of perceptions, but just one. We would never dream of doing that to students, why would we do that to the teachers?

My Goal: Make Myself Unessecary

In a three part series, I had laid out my brief journey of how I define my purpose as a teacher. In part three, I stated that my main goal, the one that keeps me coming back day after day, year after year, is to create free and independent thinkers.

Another purpose of maintaining a blog was to document interesting phenomenon as it occurred. I have several years of bound up frustration that I want to share with the world, but I want to record events as they happen, while they are fresh in my mind.

Recently I had one of those class periods where several students were out for a field trip at the end of an already grueling week, making for a period that the remaining students were pretty lackluster in their desire for mental exertion. We did a little review and then began talking. We started talking physics and one of the girls in class chimed in that she felt like she was only able to do the examples in class, that she need formulas to be able to accomplish the exercises. Here is roughly how our exchange went.

Me: “Why don’t you make up some problems?”

Another Student: “That’s what I did.”

Her: “I don’t know how.”

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I go to the board draw a little scenario. We start messing around with the problem. One of the students puts up a formula involving the square of final velocity and gravity. We are hung up on the use of acceleration due to gravity and how it would affect projectile motion. Bell rings, but I am still intrigued by the problem. Luckily, she usually stays in my room during the next class and I keep going back to the problem every so often. Eventually I come to the conclusion that the acceleration due to gravity is unnecessary.

Her: “I said that a long time ago.”

She was right, she did, but we had discounted it at the time. That, and she didn’t state that gravity was not needed she ASKED if gravity was needed. When she asked she is admitting that she wasn’t sure. She is admitting that she doesn’t want to support her idea. She is looking for me to support her idea because if I do it she can remember that she is right and never has to find a reason why her idea was right. She is granting me the power and authority of knowledge and admitting weakness.

I dismissed her because I didn’t know better. She stopped because I didn’t affirm her. What should have happened was that she would have challenged my dismissal and forced me to see how her idea was correct. She is acting as a microcosm of how school functions for many of our students. Too many of our students seek the approval of their ideas from an external source (teachers) rather than reason out the correctness of their ideas for themselves.

That’s my goal though, to rectify that scenario. Every time a student leaves my care answering every question with a question, seeking that approval, I feel like I have failed. Every time a student leaves my class feeling good about their grade, but not sure of what they know, I feel like I have failed. I want my students to be able to confidently answer questions, to reason the answers for themselves. My students should eventually view me as a resource, but not a necessity.

Maybe this isn’t such a good goal.  Is it really a great idea to make myself unnecessary?