An Impossible Job

Dr. Foss: What are you in for?

Teacher: I have to teach math.

Dr. Foss: Ok, so what’s the problem?

Teacher: I’ve never experienced learning math in the way I’m expected to teach it.

Math Rehab 101

Insert the word “People” for Children

I spent the last two weeks preparing for and presenting at professional conferences for math teachers. I took a risk with the title of my session: Math Rehab, hoping that people would feel comfortable enough sharing their stories. Teachers are not a group that likes to admit defeat, especially in front of their peers. Admitting that you struggled learning math is risky business in a room of math educators. I wasn’t sure anyone would even show up.

I took my chances and am glad I did. I didn’t get as many participants as I would have liked, but the conversations we had were real and the stories shared were all too familiar. We need to pay more attention to teachers experiences as students. Were they positive? Negative? Traumatizing? Frustrating? These experiences, if not understood, will most definetly impact their students.

An Impossible Job

Imagine this: you go your whole life visiting doctor’s offices, watching doctors portrayed in movies and on TV. You go to school to become a doctor, go through residency, pass all the tests, and are finally given the piece of paper you need to do the job. All of your experience has led you to believe you are fully prepared. Then, on your first day on the job, you are asked to practice medicine TOTALLY DIFFERENT than you have ever experienced. You are expected to treat your patients differently than you were treated by your own doctors, differently than you were taught in med school, differently than the other doctors during your residency, oh, and you are expected to do this with very minimal training and support, if any at all. Good luck! Remember, you didn’t get into this line of work for the money… oh wait, maybe you did.

Seems silly right? Welllll…. you probably know where I am going with this. Insert math teacher into the scenario above and you have the true story of millions of K-12 math teachers across the country.

Math teachers are expected to teach math for understanding, allowing students to construct their own understanding and make real mathematical connections that will stick. Sounds great, right? Sure would be, but if you were educated in the U.S. and experienced a traditional math classroom then you most likely have no idea what this would be like.

Don’t get me wrong, most teachers are totally on board, after all, we didn’t get into this line of work for the money. Whatever is best for students is what we want to do. If you have ever tried to do something new with little training and little support then you know what a difficult ask this is. If you have ever tried to change a habit, perspective, or belief, then you know how impossible it can seem. Yet, we persist. Despite the challenge, despite the pressure to perform, despite the constant barrage of criticism from misinformed leaders, co-workers, and parents, despite all the political BS that infests education… despite all that. We continue to teach, we continue to learn, we make and re-make commitments to ourselves and our students to be the best we can be. Every. Damn. Day.

So, before you open your mouth about anything related to math education, educators, or the subject in general, do your research. Ask the right people the right questions. Be patient with our profession as we continue to do the impossible job of preparing the next generation for whatever dumpster fires lie ahead. Have grace. For students, for teachers, and for yourself. Learning new things is hard, but refusing to do so is harder.

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