After attending the NCTM conferences a couple of weeks ago, and especially after the inspirational #ShadowCon talks by Kaneka Turner and Robert Kaplinsky, I heard my call to action, and I set out to reflect on what I was doing to empower students and invite them to the math table. For much of my teaching career, I’ve believed that the idea that a student wasn’t a math person was an impossibility, that there are so many parts to math that surely any student could be strong in at least one of those parts when given a chance, and when they put in the requisite effort, and that could spread to success in other parts of math. Over time, the details of my beliefs changed and morphed as I got to know more and more students, but the overall sentiments were the same. Then I read Jo Boaler’s book “What’s Math Got to Do With It?” which led me to more of her writing and research, and gave me a framework to think about and explain my own ideas, which very much aligned with what she was saying.
But even though I felt like I was doing a lot of the right things, and was attempting the right approaches, it had been a while since I had received any concrete validation that I was making a difference in any students except the “strong” ones who came in as “math people” and already had confidence in their ability.
A student came into my classroom earlier this year, telling me that she was not a math person, no good at math, couldn’t do it. If you’re a math teacher, you’ve heard this same story countless times, I’m sure. Well, I made sure to point out some of the really great things that I had already seen from her, and pointed out some of the great discussions that we’d had in class based on some of the questions that she had and some of the “mistakes” that she’s made. I didn’t know if any of what I was saying was sinking in, as she still repeated her mantra of not being good at math as recently as earlier this week. Well, last night, I got an email that brought a bona fide tear to my eye:
I was thrilled that yes, she saw herself as good at math, and yes, she felt invited to the math table, and yes, I was doing the right thing. With great pride, I tweeted this out, and then started questioning things. How long would this last? Is she still going to feel like a math person tomorrow? Next week? Next year? What about the other students – I know that she’s not the only student that hasn’t felt empowered or invited, and I have a lot of work to do.
And then I remember the last conversation I had with my father before he passed away. One Friday morning in 2010, I was driving to work and talking to my father on the phone, as I often did. We were discussing a former student of mine that I had been tutoring, and I was concerned that even though I was making good progress with her, there were many other students from that school in East Oakland that could have also been successful, and I wasn’t able to help them. He told me, “You can’t save everyone, but you can save one person at a time.” Ignoring the potentially patronizing tone in retrospect, the main idea has become a cornerstone of how I’ve tried to approach my teaching career. It’s like the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said – “All politics is local”. I may not be in a position right now to change the entire math education landscape, but I can work to change how my students view themselves in the world of math, and I can make sure to continue to work on it, one student at a time.