I just read a nice post this morning, Zack Cresswell’s How 10 minutes on Twitter reminds you that you’re awful and not trying hard enough. It really spoke to me a lot about how easy it can be for those of us who care about our work as teachers to feel like we never really measure up. And it’s absolutely true. After fifteen years, I’ve had a lot of success with students, and that is usually the public face that goes out on social media, but it’s my failures with students that keep me up at night. The student who doesn’t do their work, who doesn’t study, who isn’t excited by my class, often makes me wonder what I’m doing wrong. The student who does their work, asks lots of good questions, really pushes to do their best, but still doesn’t get it on a test – that student ALWAYS makes me question my methods.
At the end of each day, though, I try to reflect back on what worked, and what didn’t, and more importantly, ask myself if I did more good or more harm that day. What does success mean, and is it an endpoint or a starting point? For the student who comes to my classroom at the beginning of the year saying that they hate math and have never been any good at it – am I making efforts each day to show them something exciting and wondrous and awe-inspiring? Am I assuming that they can learn something new? Am I meeting them where they are at, and trying to find a way for them to feel successful at something in my class? If none of those efforts worked, do I try again the next day, with a combination of the same approaches and different approaches? At the end of the year, does that student feel better or worse about the world of math, and does that student feel better or worse about their place in that world? For some students, success may not be an A, or even a B. For some students, success may be passing a class that they thought was going to be impossible, and feeling like they have a place at the mathematician’s banquet, that there’s something there for them to eat.
Then, what is failure? Have I made a student feel worse about their ability to do math? Have I kicked them out of the banquet hall, and uninvited them? Hopefully that hasn’t happened, but I’m sure if I were to go back and interview the hundreds of students I’ve had over the years, some of them may well have gotten that impression.
It’s important to remember that in a society where people proudly proclaim that they aren’t math people, where parents post angry rants about Common Core assignments (that have nothing to do with Common Core standards, but that’s another issue), where students regularly question why they have to take math in a way that doesn’t seem to come up in other subject areas, where pop culture is constantly talking about how math is hard and nobody likes it, that we as math teachers are facing an uphill battle. I still get upset when someone that I normally like and respect (John Oliver), makes such a terribly math-phobic comment:
For some students, success may be holding our ground and not making things worse. For some students, maybe there are so many other things going on in their lives that are beyond our control that all we can do is push forward in the smallest increments, in the hopes that when they are ready, either we or the next teacher they get will be ready to help move them forward.
I realize I’ve stealing some metaphors directly from some inspiring people that I’ve recently been introduced to, and want to acknowledge before I forget their contributions to my thinking- Kaneka Turner, whose NCTM 2016 ShadowCon presentation on inviting students to the math table clearly impacted me, and John Stevens and Matt Vaudrey, whose book Classroom Chef has whet my appetite for some exciting updates to my lessons for next year.