May 31, 2020

Choose Your Own Adventure

I opened this blog post more than 12 hours ago. I had a thought this morning I wanted to share, but it requires context. Luckily I just remembered that I had a whole document of pre-written context! We were supposed to do a panel at NCTM in Chicago. Hema Khodai, Marian Dingle, Julie Wright and I. It was titled Choose Your Own Adventure: Equity-Minded Teacher Edition. We were going to share some of our stories, the choices we made, what it's like trying to be an equity minded teacher. To prepare for that I sat down and wrote out my whole story. I'm pasting it here, lightly edited. This isn't the format we'd intended to share, but maybe you'll learn something?

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.

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