On September 19, 2012 I hit a wall. Having been inspired by Dan Meyer, I had set out to teach magnificently, using ideas and tools found on math-teacher-blogs, and resented that those supposed-to-be-brilliant ideas and tools did not always work as expected. I wrote an email to Mr. Meyer that I tried to make measured and professional, but which was really bursting with distress and anger.
I remember reading in one of your posts that you wondered whether it’s possible to shorten the amount of time it takes for new teachers to start doing things better. My two cents: shortening the improvement period makes it tumultuous and unreliable. I work at a small school with a weak math program and a student body made up entirely of students with IEPs. I blog, read blogs, and talk to teachers outside my discipline to enhance the instruction I give. My pie in the sky was to reduce the amount of time it takes me to get better to zero. That was obviously a long shot.
I crave the opportunity to work closely with an expert teacher, to observe and be mentored by him/her, but instead I engage in a constant trial-and-error method of implementing the ideas I find in blogs while crossing my fingers that I understood what the blogger intended and that the ideas are transferable to my unique student population. I guess the trial and error aspect would stick around even with an expert mentor teacher, but at least I’d have a leg up.
You spent two years (or so) establishing yourself as a teacher before you branched away from familiar methods. My situation tells me that those two years were invaluable to your success upon branching away. I don’t want to wait two years but I don’t especially enjoy the alternative.
Unguided trial and error succeed in making me (a newbie) a better teacher on some days and advances me toward being a consistently better teacher in the future, but the overall immediate effect is that my approach is inconsistent and unsure. Oh, I don’t like that feeling. I’m not sure it benefits my students either. So my working conclusion is that reducing the time it takes to get better can only be done by increasing the badness of the intervening time.
Have you found something different to be true among the teachers you know?
Mr. Meyer responded considerately, and I sought support from colleagues at my school. This isn’t the end of the story. Just a snapshot.
Last June I wrote oh so enthusiastically about the homework policy I planned to implement in trig this year, which I had borrowed from one of my college math professors. It was going to basically change the world. Until I abandoned it only a few weeks into the school year. Wisely.
This year was funny that way. So many of my theoretically solid plans turned out to be worth bupkis in actual practice and had to be tossed. But, also in practice, I picked up ideas, plans, strategies worth far more than anything I thought I had before.
I haven’t posted here since September, partly because of time, priorities, stress, etc., and partly because it was then that I bore the heaviest load of inadequacy awareness. I had learned just enough to know that my “insights” into teaching could well turn out to be that much rubbish, and it seemed that my options for publishing posts were to either pretend to greater wisdom than I had or fill them with nauseating angst.
But here I am in May! With a list of things I’d like to reflect on in writing! And enough objectivity, despite my still-new-ness, to give it all, I think, a fair shake! Expect to hear more.
I’m about five weeks into the school year, so for about five weeks now, whenever I have a really good day in class I tell myself, “Jeepers, I’m pretty remarkable. I guess I’ve hit my stride as a math teacher now and am going to keep being remarkable from here on out.”
Then, the next time I have a doldrum-y day, I worry and fuss over what went wrong, what I need to do differently. And at some point I reassure myself that “I’m still settling into the role, the new students, the odd classroom situation, etc. But I’ve got really good stuff coming up, so don’t worry — I’m gonna hit my stride and start bringing the house down with my general excellence.”
I’ve been devotedly trying out ideas I get from esteemed math teacher-bloggers, but there’s a limit to how effectively I can implement methods born of experience when I have very little. I still want to try them. I just flounder a bit as I do.
My Trig-ers are preparing for their second test of the year. I accidentally did something funky with this unit, which has complicated the test prep process for them. It’s possible that it could improve their long-term info retention, but I’ll have to see whether the improvement is worth doing it this way again.
I began teaching the first unit (a review of the final material from their last math class) overestimating the amount they’d remember from last year, underestimating the difficulty of schoolwork re-entry, and not realizing that the previous trig teacher (whose reviews and tests I’m using) split this unit in two.
That last error led me to push the students through the entire unit before telling them to go back and review only the first half of what we covered. After reviewing and being tested on that half, they began reviewing the second half, which is recent enough that instruction about it is now boring, but distant enough that they were all relatively lost. I gave a valiant effort at stepping them back through the material, but observed that even the most diligent among them were intellectually zonked out. So I stopped, and set them loose on some review problems.
Cons: the class seems unorganized and confusing. Possible pros: hitting the material twice, with a bit of a break between, could improve their long-term retention. Their test is on Monday and I wish them the very best.
I’m doing some things in my trig class differently from what my students are used to. For example, instead of showing them how to multiply a trinomial and a binomial, I reviewed how to multiply two binomials and then asked them to figure out how do it with a trinomial. I answered questions and gave support but did not give instructions. I did this for two reasons: first, it’s important for students to view math as a way of figuring things out, not a list of disjointed procedures. Second, in Brain Rules by John Medina, which all teachers at my school read over the summer, Medina explains that simple things are actually harder to remember, while complex things (like applying a concept to a new situation without comprehensive directions) are actually easier to remember.
Some students (I’m thinking of one in particular) are unexpectedly thriving in this new atmosphere and love the change. Others are ambivalent. Others (again, I’m thinking of one in particular) seem frustrated that the familiar math class landscape has changed, leaving them uncertain of how to proceed.
I’m crossing my fingers that I can help them appreciate this more meaningful challenge.
The trig gears were grinding clumsily today. Disappointing after a smooth(ish) and ambitious start. My problem is two-fold and self-contradictory. I both over- and under-estimated my students. In the same lesson. Using the very same slides. Then I grew impatient.
Maybe I oughta get myself a ukelele (channeling Sarcasymptote) to help us all chill out a bit.
I actually had a great time in Algebra II, working with students, bringing the math out, and having a laugh, maybe because I was working with students I’ve already taught. But the trig flop is winning the battle for preeminence in my thoughts.
I came across this article on the Planet Money blog last week: “Why Einstein Was Not Qualified to Teach High-School Physics.” (The answer: because he didn’t hold the required teacher certifications.)
My initial reaction is, “Careful, now. Einstein was a legendary physicist, but I can’t say whether he would have made an effective high school physics teacher.” Then again, can I say that all those carrying secondary teaching certificates now make effective high school teachers? A perplexing issue, right? Do teaching certification requirements ensure quality classroom instruction, or prevent great teachers from entering the profession?
Here’s where I stand. Education about education is essential for those who teach, but school systems should be in the business of maximizing the ways that talented people can enter the field.
Here’s my bias: I’m one of those people benefiting from a non-traditional entrance into teaching. I’m not yet certified but have plans to change that, and am an enthusiastic advocate of replicating in public schools the apprenticeship style of entry I experienced at a private school. If schools want to gain access to a large demographic of ambitious adults seeking employment and eager to learn a profession, they need to create entry level positions that can be filled by young college grads looking for work, who are potentially interested in teaching but not ed majors. (For me this was the “support teacher” position.) Let them learn some of the tricks of the trade, work with teachers and students, and find out whether their interest is more than fleeting before they have to fully commit to the profession. Schools would benefit from the chance to observe some of their aptitudes on the job before making a full commitment as well.
As these employees acquired experience and skill, they would be promoted to increasingly responsible positions on the condition that they seek any necessary certifications. This would be a more organic entry into the profession and would better match much of the rest of the workforce, where you climb the ranks by showing that you’re good at your job.