Friday, November 25, 2011


One of my goals in starting this blog is to address (and ultimately overcome) many of the fears I have as a first-year teacher. Before I go into detail, let me set up a little background for you.

I graduated with my B.S. in mathematics with minors in biology and chemistry about a year and a half ago. Having a vocal music/performing arts background as well as a passion for the sciences, I decided to pursue education rather than research for my career. I'm now 3/4 of the way through a master's degree in secondary education with a focus in math education. I also teach at a small (~140 students) charter school that emphasizes career-readiness and project-based learning.

Sounds positive, right? Well, I'm teaching six different classes (regular and honors Algebra I, regular and honors Algebra II, Geometry, and Statistics). My classes, while small, contain mostly at-risk students and several fully-immersed special education students (without support from a special education teacher, which violates several IEPs). I also have fewer resources and more administrative duties than I expected because we're such a small school. Add the stress of a complete administration overhaul and two weeks of medical leave taken after surgery (stories for another time, perhaps...), and it all adds up to what sometimes feels like the First Year from Hell.

And there you have the source of my many fears. I'm afraid that I can't relate to many of these kids. I'm afraid I can't reach some them no matter what I try. I'm especially afraid of failure despite what I tell my students about failure as a necessary element of creating knowledge.

I'm afraid that I can't relate to many of these kids.I don't have a rebellious bone in my body. Conflict makes me nervous (probably not a good trait to have as a high school teacher). I've always respected authority, even when I've questioned it. I've never been in a fight. I've never done drugs. I didn't drink until I was 21. I've never even gotten a traffic ticket. So, how do I compassion toward teenagers who aren't afraid to throw or take a punch, who don't fear consequences like Fs or suspensions, who approach problem-solving with emotion first and logical reasoning second (if at all), and who probably think I'm a giant pansy. How do I show them that I am, in fact, a real person and not a nerd-bot?

I'm afraid I can't reach some of them no matter what I try.
The students and I are fortunate to have such small classes because it makes differentiated instruction much easier to implement. However, that does not guarantee that I'm any good at implementing it. I'm really a terrible multitasker, so up to this point in the school year I haven't done well running different activities simultaneous. I've focused instead on differentiating the level of complexity and the presentation of material (auditory, visual, verbal, hands-on, etc.). I try to give students some choice in the style and context of questions they answer (though I believe nudging students out of their comfort zones is necessary for personal growth). Despite this, I have some students (and a good 2/3 of one class) who I struggle to engage in learning. I've tried creative projects. I've tried authentic contexts. I've tried structured activities. I've tried open-ended questions. I'm having trouble leading them to water, much less making them drink. On Monday/Tuesday, I plan to use the following as a warm-up activity in 3 of my classes: "Write me a letter. In it, tell me what your goals are for this class and for this school year. What do you enjoy about school? What do you wish were different? Suggest an activity for us to do as a class some time this year." I hope this will allow some of the "unreachables" and I to communicate with each other a little better. What else can I try to engage these kids?

I'm afraid of failure despite what I tell my students about failure as a necessary element of creating knowledge. The scientific method requires failure. We form hypotheses. We test hypotheses. We measure the results and compare them to the hypotheses. Very often, we analyze the failure in our results and use the failure to refine our hypothesis for a new test. Despite my understanding of this, there's still a stubborn part of me that feels like failure is something final that I can't recover from. FALSE. Recovery can be difficult, but it is possible. I assigned a project to my geometry class to analyze the logic of advertisements in which they write and study conditional statements and their converses, inverses, and contrapositives based on ads. This is the only project I've ever found on the topic of logical statements, and in hindsight it's a pretty awful one. Is analyzing the logic of advertising a useful activity for real-world decision-making? Absolutely! Are the converses, inverses, and contrapositives of advertising slogans useful tools for such analysis? Hardly. My students recognized this far faster than I did, and their response was to do anything other than complete the project. My confidence was temporarily crushed. My content knowledge of geometry is much weaker than I'd like (meaning I haven't had a geometry class since I was a freshman in high school; I focused on linear algebra, statistics, and numerical methods as an undergrad), so I was completely lost as to how I should approach the study of logic with this group. This situation leads me to several questions. How do I find a new way to do things when I don't really feel like I know what I'm doing? How do I make logic feel more like "math" in my students' eyes? How do I help my students grow from both my failures and their own failures?

Hopefully I'll answer all of these questions over the course of the year. I appreciate any constructive input I can get. Both the challenge and beauty of teaching is that there is no single right answer to any question. All I can do is approach it like a scientist: do my research to collect options, experiment, refine my hypotheses, and try again until I get it right.

1 comment:

  1. There's no way you can be the game changer for every single kid in your class, but you can be for some of them! The only thing you can do is teach as well as you can and treat your most rebellious kids like their ideas are just as valuable as those of your ivy-league bound kids.
    There's no way to tell which ones will think back ten years from now and realize you were the game changer.

    Don't be afraid to let your students learn things you don't know. You not knowing everything, and modeling an approach to problem solving is probably the best thing you can do for them, since they probably think that math knowledge sprouts out of the burning bushes that are their teachers. They need to see themselves as a primary source of knowledge, not you.