Drawing On Math
Ponderings of a high school math teacher.
June 23, 2020
Is "How Do We Help?" the Right Question?
May 31, 2020
Every Single Meeting
Choose Your Own Adventure
Job 1: I was one of 4 math teachers in my wing. Each wing of the 3,000 student school functioned as a separate school. It was an immigrant community, 90% of the students were latinx. I was a first year teacher, but I was also the only one in my department with a high school teaching certification. It was a very confusing place of high status (I’d taken a full licensure program, I’d student taught, I was involved in a group of teachers across campus who met with Al Cuoco of the EDC- I knew him as the Focus on Math guy, the rest of the math education world knows him as a Big Deal) and low status (young, female, brand new teacher). Sometimes admin wanted my opinion and other times they didn’t but I didn’t know (or care?) the difference. A friend and colleague once asked me if it was possible for me to sit quietly during a faculty meeting, not speak up about what I disagreed with, and then do whatever I wanted in my own classroom. I really appreciated her phrasing because it gave me space to reflect, but also to answer “no.” I was fresh out of an empowering women’s college experience, I was not going to sit quietly! It felt impossible to sit in a room where people were making decisions that didn’t make sense and could harm students without saying so. At the end of my third year my contract wasn’t renewed. They didn’t want to be stuck with an outspoken young female as part of the tenured faculty.
I was also a privileged white person teaching kids from vastly different backgrounds than my own. While I was advocating for all gender bathrooms in 2009, I was also learning, clumsily, about cultural differences, the impacts of racism, trauma, and a host of other things I’d been largely sheltered from for my entire life.
Job 2: I lasted longer here! 8.5 years of growth as an individual and an educator. I still spoke up, but I was in a larger school and a larger department, so my voice didn’t stick out so much. A chorus of people questioning and pushing, taking turns, and speaking in unison is much different than a lone voice. I also learned to differentiate when my opinion was wanted, when I felt like it was needed, and when it would serve everyone best to bide my time and speak out in a different venue later. Despite these improvements, as years passed we could all see the school culture declining. In my first years here it would take just a few weeks to convince my students that my classroom was a place they could take risks, where I would support them, where mistakes were okay. In my final year my Algebra 2 classroom was just beginning to believe me that I really did want to help them reach my high expectations in January. (And then I left them.)
The decline was due to testing pressure, administration jumping on the next bandwagon every quarter without giving us time to settle into the previous initiative, and public doubt in the school due to a low state level assignment that led to further white flight. I had thoughts and ideas on how to counter these trends, but no power to implement them. The benefit of a larger school is I could blend in. The problem of a larger school is my voice didn’t carry enough weight to have an impact. I made suggestions, signed up for committees, offered to organize things, but it didn’t seem to matter. As my evaluation scores started reflecting my frustration with the system, I decided it was time to get out. I left midyear (at the end of the semester) which felt awful because I was abandoning my students, but also freeing because I was escaping a miserable school culture.
At first I was focused solely on math content with a sprinkling of pedagogy. I got my masters, attended summer programs like PROMYS, TMC and PCMI, joined the math teacher circle at school. But as time went on I expanded my equity work beyond the GSA to learning about all the parts of history and current events that my suburban white upbringing skipped right over. I acknowledged my white savior tendencies and opened my eyes to systemic racism. Now I get my professional development from #ClearTheAir and equity workshops. Twitter has continued to be a main source of community and growth, but who/what I’ve focused on has shifted.
Job 3: I left teaching to write curriculum. It was amazing! Of course I missed the interaction with students and the immediate field testing of all my ideas. But I had time and space and mental capacity to think deeply about all the aspects of teaching that could come from curriculum. I was working with people who also wanted to think deeply about all these same things. I received positive feedback on a regular basis! This was mind boggling. Feedback of any form is rare in teaching, but genuine appreciation of my work? So cool! We collaborated to learn about math, equity, typical schools, atypical students. Everyone was considered and the culture welcomed critical feedback. My voice didn’t stick out because everyone was critiquing, but my voice mattered. I was invited to organize discussion groups, develop features, and share all my ideas.
Unemployment: Sadly grant funded curriculum projects don’t last forever. I’d already quit the board of TMC a few months earlier so I spent the summer feeling extremely untethered. What was left of my identity? I even applied for jobs with the Elizabeth Warren campaign - far outside of my comfort zone as someone who has only ever worked in math education. I considered going back to school as a student (PhD) as well as going back to school as a teacher. I knew I couldn’t work in a school that wouldn’t listen to my concerns around equity, it was too frustrating and exhausting to be constantly fighting a brick wall. As I considered where I wanted to spend my time going forward I wondered how to choose among the best aspects of each job:
Small company/school where I can be heard
Working in community
Both math and equity are centered
My contributions would be valued
I’d have a large impact
Currently: I am a math coach, professional development provider, and researcher at a university. I work at the Center for Math Achievement, which is made of me, the director, and the program manager - my voice is definitely heard! During the regular school year I got to visit one school on a weekly basis for coaching, which allowed me to build community there. My work is all about math equity, one of the grants we’re working on is researching how to get more underrepresented students into upper level STEM courses. The combination of small projects (a school with under 500 students) and large ones (2000 student schools, research) is meeting all of my requirements!
I keep expressing surprise that people in schools listen to me. Not many people understand why that’s surprising to me. They see me with my large twitter following and status as an author, but they don’t see how I was ignored as a classroom teacher in my own districts. Not just ignored, but pushed out. It’s frustrating that the only way for me to get a school to listen to me was by leaving the classroom. But a large part of my role is now revoicing all the things teachers say. And giving them the power to decide how to spend their PLC time. It shouldn’t be novel that teachers have important ideas, but for as long as it is, I’ll be using whatever status I have to amplify them. And the same goes for students, but that's another post.
October 5, 2019
Modeling my Commute
- I could walk to the bus
- I could drive to the commuter rail
- I could drive (farther) to the subway
July 5, 2019
Dreaming and Deliberating
- My values are community and making a difference.
- I'm only looking at jobs I can do remotely or commute to from Salem, MA.
- I'm trying to cast a wide net as I consider options and opportunities.
The other things I've refined:
I believe in the power of a public education. Public schools are essential to the kind of society I want to live in. Our current public school system is broken. I spent over a decade working within the system, and I just can't imagine going back to that right now. I miss having students, I have so many ideas I want to test out, and I really want to see what the curriculum I spent the last year and half writing feels like from the teacher perspective. However, I don't want to be part of a testing culture that prioritizes compliance or graduation rates over students as human beings. And I just don't have any faith left that a local public school is doing that. Alternative public or semi-public schools (thinking ones for students with disabilities) fit within my realm of acceptable options, charter and private schools are off my list. I need to learn a bit more about how necessary a PhD is for the variety of college teaching options that exist.
I would really love to just play math with kids and adults all the time (see my last 3 posts and a growing folder of ideas and resources). I have made some progress in figuring out how to take this from a hobby to a job (see that same folder) but it feels like a giant leap and I'd rather approach it as an incremental transition from individual beta testers, to a library play group, to a thing I try to find funding for. But it sure is distracting to see this wide open public space next to an empty retail shop downtown. I would rather spend time playing than job searching any day.
So to pay the bills I'm applying to all sorts of curriculum jobs. I'm good at that. I enjoy doing it. But again I'm very picky about where I'll work. I'm not going to help someone make their computer program intended for rows of kids staring at screens mathematically correct, but I will gladly help someone make their math content more pedagogically sound.
If I don't find a full time job soon I'll probably write a third edition of Nix the Tricks (anyone want to pay me to do that?) this summer. I do really like writing...