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.

I Started a Twitter, and Other Musings

I started a Twitter. I started a Twitter because I wanted to jump on the #MTBoS bandwagon. Since joining, I have used it to get ideas for class, reflected on my practices, engaged in a conversation about the purpose of high school, communicate project ideas to my students over the weekend, and even had a student bring in supplies to keep a project going for class. Unfortunately, the following I have developed has been mostly, okay, almost exclusively students.

One student asked me, “So all you do is tweet about boring teacher stuff?”

Boring? Teacher stuff? I was incredulous. This is my work, this is my life’s passion. Are we really to the point that our students think that all I do is clock in, clock out, assign some homework, grade some tests? Do I really give off the vibe that all I think of teaching is that it is just another job?

I used to think like that, but that was when I was first decided to become a teacher after listening to the advice of my guidance counselors. I followed the dogmas of, “do what you like,” and, “do what your’e good at.” I liked school and was good at school, so I should be a teacher. Problem solved. But the problem was that I was nothing but a soul crushing teacher. There was no purpose behind my teaching other than to generate work for good little obedient students, and I thought I was a great. Even my evaluations and test scores said I was great. In reality though, all I was doing was training students for a life of drudgery working menial jobs.

I managed to change though, or at least I think I did. Sure, to many students I am still just another soul crushing teacher, but I am not that to ALL my students. So here’s what happened.

First I was taking graduate courses in History at Bowling Green State University, which did two things for me. It made me reevaluate the formulation of knowledge, making me keenly aware that knowledge, truth and power, is not defined by any person. It is why the Allegory of the Cave speaks to me as more than something read in literature class. I also learned the power of the herd effect. When I was surrounded by individuals who have a very compliant view of school in undergrad, I became just like them. I did what I needed to do to get good grades, without questioning what I was doing. Being in an environment where everyone, and I mean everyone, was authentically engaged made me become engaged with learning for the first time in my life. Since those years I have never need a GPA, ACT, Praxis, or GRE score to define my worth.

Second, I had a melt down in Calculus during the 2010-2011 school year. I had been struggling to teach the subject blaming it on the “rust” that developed since I hadn’t been exposed to the subject since 2002. Eventually it became to much. I couldn’t keep justifying why things happen in math with the reasoning, “because that’s they way they are,” or, “that’s how I was taught.” I realized that I didn’t actually know Calculus, or really much other math for that matter. I had a BA in the subject, but couldn’t apply the math in anyway outside of a textbook problem, and even struggled with some textbook problems. Combined with what I was learning about knowledge in grad classes, I realized that they way I was teaching math was to make it nothing more that some torture device thought up by some people in a room somewhere to categorize students. It had absolutely no meaning. And I had this existential crisis in a single moment, in front of students.

Luckily for me they were very understanding. It was then that I decided that I needed to either leave teaching or redefine my teaching. I tried to make sure everything in math had a purpose, a reason for the way it was. Everything didn’t need to have “real-life” applications, but I started to use the term “math-world.” I wanted students to be able to at least apply what they were learning in an abstract math sense. At the time I didn’t know it, but I was trying to force my students to activate prior knowledge with the hopes that by doing so would increase retention and comprehension. Things had to at least make sense. What this means is that my classroom really became more about how to acquire knowledge more than any particular math topic.

It also made me hate the student I was during high school and college. It made me keenly aware of the horrible teacher I was early in my career.

 

I had found a purpose in my teaching. I want my student to find a purpose because a purpose is what keeps me up at 2:28 AM writing and reflecting on my profession, searching for ways I could be better. Purpose is what makes a career rewarding. My purpose is explaining math to students in comprehensible ways.

Then Facebook.

Facebook is a great way to stalk former high school classmates. Perusing through the ones I could find off the top of my head I found, four doctors, one lawyer, two dentists, one optometrist, one lawyer, three psychologists, two university professors, several business owners, multiple accountants, three engineers, and so on. I also noticed several who had bounced from career to career or who could have been considered to under achieve. I would count myself as that underachieving group.

Why did I underachieve? Where some of my classmate just smarter than me? The more I think about it, the more I started to realize there usually was one key difference between us. My underachiever compatriots grew up in environments where our parents had jobs and not careers. Day in and day out we never witnessed our parents pursue a career with a passion. They had jobs, but it was just a mean to pay the bills. We were never exposed to the behaviors that would lead us to a great career. Or another possibility was that we achieved good grades and accolades in school, and that was enough. As long as we made honor roll we were told “good job” and left alone. All this did was breed habits that got good grades with the least amount of learning possible. I wasn’t necessarily dumber than my more successful peers, I had just made grades and test scores an ends rather than a means.

I feel as if my college and high school years were completely squandered. When a student says, “I get good grades, but I don’t feel like I am learning anything,” I know exactly what they mean. I am especially elated that they are realizing that while still in high school, while there is still time to right the ship, unlike me, who wasted years of educational opportunity.

During the 2012-2013 school year I realize that just teaching math wasn’t enough. I was a much better math teacher, but I wasn’t pushing the students to achieve. Looking around me I saw that all I really was doing was creating clones of what I was, setting students up to find environments where they will feel comfortable, but won’t be pushed. I started to question if I can consider myself a good teacher if all I can do is teach math. I didn’t want students to squander the opportunities I did.

After watching the Larry Smith video above, I started to think back to my high school and college days, searching for reasons why I squandered my opportunities. I enjoyed my time at Jamestown, but I started to realize I ended up at Jamestown out of fear. I was worried that engineering would have been too difficult. I was fearful of going as far away as Princeton. I was worried that I would be the dumb student at U of Chicago. I was terrified of playing sports at a school like South Dakota State or Valpo. I told myself that I was JUST going to be a teacher, so Jamestown would be good enough. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Jamestown, it was that I didn’t even explore my other options. I wrote them off, rationalized away my trepidation.

My school is infected by fear as well, but it is a different fear than the one I faced. My school is infected with a fear of money. So many of my students see education purely in terms of finance. They think about careers in terms of salaries and job placements. They think about schools in terms of tuition dollars only. They think about classes in terms of ease rather than knowledge. Deep down though, I think some of them realize that this process is wrong. I want to push those students, but I don’t, because I have found that I can push students to pursue knowledge and wisdom (in terms of the Cave) or I can teach math, but often I can’t do both.

So I search for that opening from students. Those students who aren’t just content saving money at the local community college or living at home. Those students who think they could find better things out there then what’s just sitting before them. Pushing into that fear can be painful.

I ask students what their plans are for after high school. Some will get defensive when I ask and I back off. I want to push my students, I want them to desire more than the lowest cost alternative, but I am afraid. I am fearful of a society that tells me that my job is to teach students math and nothing more. Often I feel like I am confronted with choosing between doing the right thing or doing the OTES thing.

How do I respond to this internal conflict? I ask, “What are you going to do with your life?”

What I really am saying is…”I have seen some sort of potential in you. Someplace along the years you made the mistake of showing me that you have a wonderful mind that is only begging to be tapped. But you have also shown me that you are not entirely sure how you want that potential to manifest itself. You have shown me that you are conflicted between what you really want to do and what your friends and parents are telling you to do. I want to help you. I want to push you, but I can’t in this setting, in this classroom.”

Every year I see a handful of the potential Will Huntings, maybe not geniuses, but those students who are smart enough to do anything, but are too afraid to. Every year I really, really, want to give them Ben Affleck’s speech. (Don’t watch if you offended by the F-Bomb.)

I seemed to have gotten off topic.

So… I started a Twitter.

Bell Curving My Students

There have been several questions on my mind lately, but a general theme has occurred on four separate occasions during the past two weeks.

  1. A student just blatantly asked if I actually like my students, as if his interactions with his teachers has lead him to believe that we teachers hate students.
  2. A student admitted that she feels like all of her teachers don’t respect her.
  3. In a conversation with a student I admitted that I will miss her after graduation.
  4. While planning reward activities at my school I get the distinct impression that some teachers do not want to interact with students outside of their academic comfort zone.

I don’t think I want to address each of the last four statements individually, but I would like to address the concept that is at play here, which would be, “how I think about the student-teacher relationship.”

Before I go too far into the details, let me say that I have always considered myself a generalist (though I have been failing at that lately). What that means for me is that the well-being and flourishing of the student should always come first, with math being the tool that I have been given to use. With maybe that being said, maybe this next part will be a little more comprehensible.

Since I am a math teacher let me bell curve my interpretation of the student teacher relationship.

Standard_deviation_diagram.svg The students that sit out beyond -3σ, that 0.1%, those students are the ones that I find truly detestable. These students are so few and far between that in ten years of teaching I can count them on one hand.

The students that lie between -3σ and -1σ, or 15.7%, I am a tolerable polite with those students.

One standard deviation in either direction, or -1σ to 1σ, or the vast majority of my students I am genuinely interested in their lives. I want to know how other classes are going. Are they looking for work? I want to know how the basketball game went because of this middle 68.2%, but my relationship with these students is strictly defined around school activities. The only thing that separates them is the mean of zero, which to me defines whether I initiate contact with the student or just participate with them after they initiate.

The 1σ to 2σ group, the 13.6% of my students, are the reason that I go to basketball games, musicals, concerts, etc. They are the reason that my date nights with my wife so often involve other people’s kids. Though I view my relationship with these students is still defined by a school environment, I view my compassion and caring through the lens of being a fellow human being more than that of a teacher and student.

Those students in the last two groups, the 2σ and beyond, the 2.1% and the 0.1%, those students are the ones that I want to become involved in their lives. I want to know where they want to go to college and how I can help them succeed. I want to know where they are five years after they have graduated. These are the students that I feel that I can wash away the line that demarcates the teacher-student relationship, to the point that I don’t have to worry about censoring myself. Being so connected to these is what allows me to be precisely the most effective teacher I can be.  These are the students that I will genuinely miss seeing them on a daily basis. These are the students that actually make me look forward to class. These are the students that I look back on with regret, thinking that I could have done more to push them to reach and surpass their potential.

But that last group the 3σ, once again a group that I could count on one hand over ten years of teaching, that represents the students that I miss or will miss the most. Those are the group that make me question the teacher-student relationship because that small group represents the group that I wish I could call friends, if not for the societal stigma of a teacher and student being friends.

So, after all that, back to the original list.

  1. Yes, I do like the vast majority of my students. It’s also the reason why I wish they would take more classes with me.
  2. I feel so empathetic to this student. It is precisely this empathy that usually starts to bridge a connectedness that makes the student teacher relationship so much more effective. I just don’t know how to address it in the middle of class.
  3. Well, I guess this student could figure out where she ranks in my hierarchy of students.
  4. This is why I like planning reward activities. It gives me a chance to hopefully interact with my students on a personal level, especially depending on which ones sign up.

Well, that’s how I think about my students. I just wish I was allowed the freedom to interact with them in a more humane manner instead of treating school like a gigantic information transfer.

 

Why I Teach (Part 2)

Last time I wrote I laid out the foundation of why I teach, or at least what I thought those reasons were. With the benefit of hindsight I realize I was so very misguided. My moment of grand realization, this epiphany, occurred during the 2010-2011 school year. I had been teaching Geometry, Algebra I, and Calculus. I had noticed that my geometry had centered around memorizing a whole bunch of theorems. Not in the sense to just regurgitate them, but so that students could apply them to algebraic equations. I told myself that this made me a good teacher. Students criticized me for this style of teaching, but the criticism came in the form of complaints, so I usually brushed it off and kept moving forward.

One day, in my Calculus class, a student simply asked, “Why?” There was no complaining, no questioning of the premise of school, just, “why?” He could have just copied and memorized the procedure, like most students do, but in that moment he decided he wanted to know why the procedure worked. And guess how I answered, “I don’t know.”

That really frustrated me at the time. I had struggled teaching Calculus and I had simply blamed the problem on the fact that I had not spent time with the course for five years. But this time it was different. I started reflecting on the idea that math was just about all the procedures I had accumulated in class. I realized that I was able to DO most of the math problems that came my way, but I didn’t understand WHY the procedures I was using were working. As I spent more and more time reflecting, I came to the conclusion that for me, math was nothing more than a contrived system of rules for students to memorize and apply in the context of math class.

At the same time though, I knew that math was not invented in some vacuum away from reality. I knew that math was and is used by builders, engineers, scientists and many others, so why should it be viewed in school within the context of hoop jumping. Too many students, teachers, and people in general only view math as something that has to be done without any real value too it. I have heard far too many people describe my content as a way to weed out the lazy, stupid, and unmotivated. I didn’t want to be a part of that.

I also had a personal crisis. I had struggled to teach Calculus I. I had a BA in Mathematics. That thought caused some serious cognitive dissonance. What was the purpose of my math major if I couldn’t apply, let alone remember what I had done several years ago? At the same time I was thinking this I had just begun work on a History Masters, which has really transformed the way I view authority, power, and knowledge. I slowly began to rework my math understanding, moving into a realm where math had to make sense. It was no longer enough to get my answers to match the book because the book did not have authority of knowledge. The book only had authority of title. As math began to make sense I started to organically see the applications of the math subjects I would be teaching. I began to view complex math schema rather than a jumbled collection of memorized examples.

As math started to make sense to me, for the first time in my life really, I became very frustrated with my former self. I thought about all the opportunity that I had wasted striving for grades rather than understanding. To this very day I look back at my high school and college experience with regret because I was a label chaser, I wanted the GPA, I wanted the degrees. I achieved them, but knew nothing.

I never want my students to go through that.