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.

 

 

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.

Feeling Nostalgic Tonight

Two interesting things happened a few days ago. In one class, as I was trying to push some students with “why” type questions, a student pointed out that I seem to have disagreements with the American education system. In the next class, a student mentioned that she wasn’t sure where she was going to college. Well, I felt like a failure right then and there, but why? I am just a math teacher, my responsibility is to teach math, everything else is the responsibility of the student, right?

After the class of 2013 graduated, I decided the answer was no. The class of 2013 was the first group of freshman I had at my current job. I had many of them for three years of classes, and several for four. In a way I kind of grew up in my teaching along with them. Growing up with them meant that I formed countless inside jokes and built a level of comfort so that I could try and push their boundaries. In return, they pushed my boundaries as a teacher as well. This was the group that got to watch me experiment with different formats and styles. It was towards the end of their time with me that I began to regret that I didn’t demand more.

When I say demand more, I am not talking about academics. I have mentioned previously about how grad school affected my concept of knowledge, but it also made me realize that many more students are capable of achieving goals they never believed if put in the right environment. There was a segment of that graduating class that reminded me of myself. It was a group of students whose cognitive ability would allow them to pursue nearly anything they wanted, but they seemed to be going through the motions.

There was no subject or activity that invoked some sort of passion. If something did create a spark of interest, they were overwhelmed with worries about future career prospects. The cost of college frightened several to the point of not even trying.

They reminded me of myself because I was that student that was doing what I supposed to do. I had the good grades and test scores that got me the scholarships, but I didn’t have any real sort of passion. When I went to college I chose a major not based upon some sort of calling or desire, but on future career prospects. I chose my college largely based upon how much it would cost.

When I graduated I found myself wondering, now what? Six years into my career I found myself wondering, is this it? I felt like I had done everything society ever had told me to do, I got good grades, I was respectful, I stayed out of trouble, I participated in voluntary activities, I held down a part time job in school, got married, bought a house, had kids, and at 27 I felt like it was a big let down. Where’s my stability? Why don’t I have the enjoyable career? All that work for just a paycheck. Then I started to worry that I would take it out on my kids, literally and figuratively.

I don’t know what the future holds for the class of 2013, but there is a handful of students that come to mind that I wish I would have pushed more. I think I did an adequate job getting most ready for college math, or at least no worse than any other teacher, but I have this nagging feeling that I should be responsible for more than just an ACT score. My job should be to guide students down a path towards a rewarding livelihood, whether that be changing their current path or encouraging them on the one they are on. If that isn’t my job I should be replaced with an automated math program, like Khan Academy.

The next year I decided to make some changes. In a conversation with a coworker I mentioned that I decided to do what I thought was right. In earlier years I had learned that I cannot impact a student’s cognitive abilities any more than I can impact a student’s height. But I had learned that I can impact a student’s EQ. I had the most efficient, productive, fun, off-task Algebra I class I ever had to that point. I was fortunate to have a small group of dedicated seniors that let me push their limits (I cannot emphasize how much it was pushed), and I don’t solely mean academic. I proof read essays and talked about college with them. I got them to question assignments instead of just complying with the assignment. Seriously, coloring as as a senior? Not everyday was about math, but everyday felt productive.

I hope that when they left that something stuck, and I’m not necessarily talking about math rules. I hope that they developed a perseverance they didn’t have before. I hope that they developed an understanding of what it means to know something. I hope that when they left me, they learned not to be content with complacency. I know that sounds kind of hippieish, but I do consider myself an idealist at times. To me though, that’s what school should be about, not power-reduction rules.

So when that student said she didn’t know where she was going to college, my heart sank. I have known this student for four years. I have had a few opportunities to push her in the past, but this should have been the year that I had her, and a couple of other potential filled students, in a small group that would have allowed me to shift the focus of education away from math. It pains me because it is reminiscent of the class of 2013 all over again. They told me their plans, or lack of them, and kept my mouth shut. I’m back at that regret all over again. Things change and the good times can’t last forever, but there has to be some way for me to get at least closer to what I had. When I reminisce about those years I don’t know if I made a difference in those student’s lives, but I know I’m not making a difference now.