What is most important in teaching?

I started teaching about eight years ago.  My teacher program was very much a constructivist tilt.  I am not an expert, but I think teacher programs tend to be more constructivist leaning than the schools and districts that employ the graduates of these programs.

I took all the lessons to heart, seeing the merits of students teaching each other and figuring things out on their own.  I then took this perspective to my job.  My district was also on the constructivist side of the spectrum, especially in terms of teaching math.  Little side note here, teacher training in this country is a total mess.  Intensive classes at a university with time in a classroom student teaching and then they plop you in your own classroom.  Scary for a good reason.

What I came to realize quite quickly is that there is a place for the “just sharpen your pencil and bang out a bunch of problems” in math.  I can’t speak to primary or high school level, but most of the concepts students learn in middle school require quite a bit of automaticity in math facts, which most of my students do not have.

I continue to struggle with this give and take of letting students take time to figure things out on their own and giving them 20 problems to practice and cement the concepts down.  The struggle continues in part because I do not have a reliable source of practice problems, which forces me to spend a lot of time I don’t have making up practice problems.

Maybe in the past math was a “here is the skill now practice it” subject that the pendulum has swung to the other side, stressing the discovery of concepts.  Unfortunately, I came along after the pendulum swung, so while they were stressing the “figure this one out” method, I had not received the indoctrination of the “better sharpen your pencils ‘cuz we got a lot of problems” method.  I am now struggling to find the balance, and I find myself leaning more to the drill and kill side of things.  I see students struggling with basic math facts (“7+3 is…um” student pulls out fingers and counts, “7+3 is eleven?”).  The struggle puts up a barrier, insurmountable for some, to gain confidence in new concepts.

There are days, however, where I have swung to far back, with students spending too much time on becoming proficient on a skill they will ultimately forget how to use, or not now how to apply when the time comes.

I feel a discussion needs to be had about how to properly proportion the exploration part of math and the practice of math skills.  This year I have relied a lot on Dan Meyer and his Perplexity problems (I highly recommend his work).  I find that the perplexity problems can capture the students’ need to solve the problem.  I have also found that the lower students quickly give up with either a defeatist attitude or with just not having any idea how to get started.

I started teaching eight years ago, but I feel no closer to having a handle on this craft.  I believe it is partly due to my somewhat lackadaisical organization.  It is also in part due to the tug of war between giving students time to practice a skill and giving them time to discover a concept.

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Meetings

I was in a staff meeting the other day.  Staff meetings are always fairly organized at my school.  This one was no different.  In fact, they had distributed the reading material the previous week.  I glanced at it walking from my box back to the classroom.  It had something to do with building relationships with students to minimize behavior issues.

A couple of years ago I would have been  much more excited about this piece of research, which was filled with real-life examples, and gave specific directions to help the teacher build relationships.  Truth is, I had a horrible year a few years back.  One of those years where I wasn’t sleeping at night because I was thinking about how to deal with one of my classes.  They got under my skin.  They knew it and I knew it.  They would walk in the class and smile a knowing smile as they saw me begin to cringe at the thought of the coming 55 minutes.

After deciding not to leave the teaching profession after that year, I came to the realization that sometimes student makeup in a classroom can affect the culture of the room, and that it is possible to request support from the administration.  In the extreme case, there are times when a student is unable to stay in the classroom.  More importantly, though, was how I learned to deal with students that see their job as finding the clinks in the teacher’s armor.  I learned to engage the student with humor rather than discipline; I joked with them in front of the whole class, making it a little diversion for everyone.

Instead of talking with the student one on one quietly, telling them how they need to be respectful to everyone, a message they’ve heard hundreds of times before, and have effectively come up with the appropriate responses (“Yes, I know.”  “I will listen from now on.”) to get this monkey off their back so they can more quickly enter their circus, otherwise known as a classroom.  Even worse than talking to them quietly one-on-one, I would call them out in front of the whole class, “You need to be quiet.  You are disrupting the class.”  Two proclamations that they were hoping I would shout out.  The classroom has suddenly become me versus them.  All the other students see the teacher picking on this one student.  He didn’t deserve that kind of treatment.  I can sense the tide turning, and I am left with fighting the current for the rest of the year.

So now, instead of pointing my finger at the class clown, the one looking for my chinks, I stop and take a dramatic breath with a big sigh.  I turn to the rest of the class with arms outstretched, palms up and say, “Is he like this in all the other classes?”  Ninety-five percent of the time I get 32 heads nodding agreement.  I then ask the class how many other classes they have with this student, and empathize with them having to endure multiple periods with him (I put a male pronoun for this student partly for generic purposes, but also because they are much more likely to be boys).

Keep in mind that I do this in a very joking mannerism.  I do not want this to be serious at all.  I want this to be a time that we can share the circus stage.  I want to show that I understand his intentions, and I don’t mind playing along for a bit.

So back to the staff meeting.  They distributed the article the previous week and then started the meeting by presenting “data” of students sent to the office in pie charts.  Other than the total number of visits, the data was nearly worthless.  One more piece of data was shown, the teacher of origin.  The underlying message was not to send students to the office.  After displaying the data, we went through the said article.

One teacher had the nerve to make the comment that sending students to the office may actually be improving the classroom culture.  All the other teachers were being good students, feigning interest.  All except for the one grading papers, who already knows she is being let go after this year.

Though I appreciate this discussion, I feel that it needs to be more action oriented.  It needs to have some clear actions that can be taken with some students, and tools for teachers having difficulty with a small group of students.  I also feel that this discussion needs to take place in August instead of February.

My last complaint is the fact that things aren’t so great in these budget crisis times.  We have up to 36 kids in a classroom, far from an ideal size, and they are discussing how to have relationships with students.  Rather than wasting an hour of our time, I’d rather have a very short meeting of nuts and bolts, and then sending us on our way to try and keep up with the mountain of paper work and parent emails.