Math Identities, Part II: Math Teacher

I mentioned in my last post that I consider this my 4th year of teaching, not my 6th. I did teach, full time, at a school in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) for 2 years. I busted my butt. Worked 24/7. Made myself sick I worked so hard. Had regular emotional breakdowns. But I can’t think of that time as time when I really grew as a teacher. I had no training. No clue what I was doing. We had one month from the time we got there to the time we were sent out to our islands. During that time we had language, culture and teaching classes. Plenty of time to train me to be a good teacher, right? (Cue hysterical laughter.)

I spent most of those 2 years learning what NOT to do as a teacher. And I didn’t realize that at the time. I just thought, “Yeah, people are right, this is a hard job. Look how hard I’m working!” When I finally started my teacher training at the University of Minnesota, I constantly found myself laughing uncontrollably-tears coming out my eyes-when a professor would mention some “not recommended” strategy. Most of the other people in my classes had less classroom time than myself and were generally accepting that said strategy was not a good idea, but not me. I was remembering watching that strategy blow up in my face in the RMI. Laughing genuinely because I could relate to it, knew it for a terrible idea in truth. Laughing desperately because I feel pained that I was such a terrible teacher for such deserving students. I now have a lot of feelings about sending inexperienced teachers abroad. I’m not recommending that we end all overseas teaching programs – I can’t. I benefitted too much. But we sure as heck should be more honest about who it helps. It helps the “teacher”. Me. Not my students. Not the community that welcomed me so graciously. Those two years were selfish. They were an amazing gift that the people of the RMI gave me, and they received so little in return for it. Ernesto Sirolli sums up my feelings about white people going abroad to “help” really well in this TED talk. Seriously, even just the first 3 minutes.

“I’m a Math Teacher, darn it!”

Claiming that I am a math teacher sometimes still feels like a leap of faith. The voracity with which I declare it depends on the crowd I’m in.

When I’m speaking with someone not in education, someone who is kindly telling me that if only math teachers would just _________, all of our problems would go away, I mentally (sometimes not) roll my eyes, and think, Shut up. You have no idea what you’re talking about. I am a math teacher. Please don’t tell me how to do my job unless you’ve actually done it, too. Bold letters. No shaking. I know what I’m doing.

When I’m speaking with other non-math teachers, teachers asking about my choices, my pedagogy, my classroom management, my vehemence in declaring myself a math teacher is an inverse of my respect for them as a teacher.

When I’m speaking to other math teachers, people I respect, people I look up to, I can only say “I am a math teacher,” in a squeaky voice after steeling myself for several moments. Hoping they don’t call me out for the fraud I might be. (Did I use “inverse” correctly in the last paragraph? Yes. Yes, I did. I made the graph to be sure, but I’m not showing you the picture because I’m not sure whether the independent variable I chose is the right one.)

When I’m by myself… depends on the day. Some days, a lesson has gone well, a colleague has supported me, a student has left me a note – and I am confident, cool. A math teacher. If things are going terribly, I’ve lost all direction in my classroom, not sure what to do next or what my students know – and I am mopey, hopeless. Know I am faking it badly.

Uncompromisable Beliefs, Edited

I have identified several core beliefs, central to who I am as a teacher. There are other, lesser ones: use ENVoY, make positive calls home, give them waiting time, pictures make everything better… but these are the big ones:

  1. Teach with a goal of sense-making. Constructivism good. Direct Instruction bad.
  2. Give rich problems. Worksheets are the worst.
  3. Tracking destroys students. Not worth it.

Good? Great? Wrong.

Every single one of these, which I do, right now, as I write this, believe in whole-heartedly, has been called into question during my time as a teacher. Thoughtfully. Meaningfully. Not-ignorably. Allow me to elaborate.

Number 1. Teach with a goal of sense-making. Constructivism good. Direct Instruction bad. 

As it turns out, sometimes, direct instruction isn’t completely evil. Sometimes its what you or your students need that day. Maybe? I’m sure no one else has ever experienced this, but there are days when my constructivist lesson ends and my students and I are all exhausted, frustrated, and no one can say with certainty what we did for the past 50 minutes. Maybe I just use terrible lessons, but the more I muse, the more I think that sometimes, even just for the sake of time or for the sake of the fact that this learning target is boring, direct instruction is okay. Don’t kick me out of #MTBoS, please.

Number 2. Give rich problems. Worksheets are the worst. 

This one I’ve probably bent the least on, but I have decided to significantly edit my understanding of it. The easy bit first: Sometimes one does need to do 15 problems to understand a skill. I know this, because I have occasionally wanted this when learning things myself. I maintain that just printing one off the internet is not ideal – even a worksheet of 15 problems can be intentionally done. Numbers chosen thoughtfully. A sequence built to encourage sense-making.

More philosophically, if I give rich problems every day, but they have no cohesion – are disjointed and don’t send us somewhere collectively – well, that’s bad teaching. I confess, this is how I have taught. I’ve been focused on rich tasks, and we’ve learned a lot through them, but I would do a lot better if I planned these more intentionally. Matt Larson, president of MCTM, pointed this out at a conference I attended a while ago, “We can’t just pick a great lesson from the internet everyday,” – I paraphrase, but that was the gist. Even though I had loved most of what he’d said until then, I thought, “Shut up! I do that and its great! You don’t know… you’re silly.”, but his comment tickled at the back of my brain, coming to the surface occasionally only to be shoved back down where I could ignore it again.

Enter the aforementioned Dylan Kane, and his Twitter Math Camp Keynote.

teacher soul

That last bit is total crap. I wasn’t feeling those things. I was suppressing them. Matt Larson was dumb. (No he’s not, please don’t kick me out of NCTM.) In his talk, Dylan told the story of rejecting a colleague’s criticism of a lesson wherein he’d used a Dan Meyer 3-act. “That’s Dan Meyer’s hand,” he justified. We all laughed.

Dylan went on to say that he hadn’t wanted to hear what his instructional coach was trying say. That maybe not all students were learning.

My pulse started to race.

Dylan continued to talk about a lack of cohesion in his lessons – he hadn’t been thoughtful about why he was using the resources he was.

I am now in full fight/flight mode, adrenaline pumping. Oh my god. He knows. They all know. I’ve been faking it for 3 years and they ALL know. I have used #MTBoS lessons and not crafted units. I used disjointed lessons!

Complete panic. Laughing appreciatively on the outside and freaking out on the inside. But I needed to hear it. Thank you for that, Dylan.

To assuage the guilt I feel, allow me to confess:

I have used rich tasks without intentionality. I have forsaken lessons that would have built stronger understanding for my students because I found a really awesome 3-act that would be totally cool to use in my class.

I have not planned nor anticipated what my students would do or get out of a lesson enough. I have not set goals as intentionally as I should. I have…deep breath…suggested solutions, and not let students struggle like I should.

I will do better.

Number 3. Tracking destroys students. Not worth it. 

For more info on this one, see my previous post. It’s personal for me, I admit that. But I have also seen it borne out in my students. We have had “support” and “enrichment” classes at Keewaydin, and students in the support classes give up. They have confirmation that they’re dumb. They’re not. I tell them that. Unfortunately, because they’re not dumb, they see my statements for a lie – they have the evidence. Right there in their schedule. They’re in the dumb class.

Having said that, not tracking students is hard. I know because I pushed for combining those classes, and we did this past year. It was tough. I heard the negative self-talk much less, but teaching the classes to any purpose at all was challenging. Differentiating is difficult.

The other thing that has made me more thoughtful about tracking is the push back I have heard from parents.  Some from math teachers who are parents. I don’t have children, so it’s hard for me to be in their shoes, but I feel like I should at least listen to what they have to say. And they have said, to me at least, that advanced classes are important for their child. That it’s the only way they’ll get into the college they want to go to. I have a friend who is an admissions counselor – those parents have a point.

I hate tracking. I do. But I can see why it exists, and I don’t know how to fix the problems.

Uncompromisable belief, Unedited

There’s a fourth one. (There’s, probably a fifth, sixth, and seventy-first one, too, but this is already really long.)

4. Believe in students. Know they can do it, and show them that with your actions and words.

This one needs no editing. It is fact. I haven’t wavered on this one bit. But I can get better at it.

Currently, I feel like I address this one with a hammer. I would be the worst spy in the world. Can’t keep thoughts in my head – they just come out. When I stink up a lesson, I say it. Aloud. When I do poorly by a student, I say it. Aloud. When I think someone’s done great work, I point it out. To the whole class. With a flashing neon sign. There is no nuance. There is no subtlety.

I’ll write about my “Mathematicians Project” in detail soon, but the gist of it is this: My students of color have few role models of mathematicians that look like them, so I take time, every week, to explicitly teach them about a non-white-male mathematician. I love doing this. It’s worked great for me and my students. But this morning, I read this post by Sara VanDerWerf, which details a class where another teacher has done the same thing, but more thoughtfully, more intentionally, without shoving it in his student’s faces. Brought me to tears.

I believe in my students. I want them to believe in themselves. But in order to show that to them, I currently have to use a megaphone and the aforementioned hammer. “Believe in yourselves!” I declare. Whack. “You’re amazing!” I holler. Whack. “That was an excellent idea!” I bellow. Whack. “Look at this mathematician! Looks just like you!” Whack. Whack. Whack. 

I don’t yet have the poise to let my student’s ideas hang in the air, to be appreciated by peers, without pointing at them and screaming, “Look! They did it! This is a great idea! What a great idea! Can’t you see, everyone? This is great! Look at it!” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get it. I have no subtlety. I can’t wait to get it, whatever it is, out there.

I’m not sure this is really a huge problem. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. I need to think on it some more. I want to be intentional with helping students think about themselves as mathematicians. Part III: Student’s mathematical identities is probably going to be longer in coming.  I have a lot of musing to do.


(Thanks for reading this far, you one person, you.)

Author: Ms. P

Math Teacher in Minneapolis, MN.

9 thoughts on “Math Identities, Part II: Math Teacher”

  1. Annie-great blogs! I think direct instruction is a fine tool to have in the toolbox along with many others. There are times it is necessary, but it does not mean kids do not talk. Even when I lead instruction, which I think is the definition of direct instruction, I am pulling kids into discussion throughout. Teaching does not have to be one way or the other rather, I think a mixture of methods serves a larger audience. You have incredible passion and drive, and that will help you immensely through the journey of teaching; in both bright and dark moments. Looking forward to reading part 3!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Totally fair – direct instruction has its place. My hesitation to use it is borne out of experiencing teachers that TOLD me math – not letting me explore it and make sense of it on my own. I think that, when used appropriately (and I guess I still think that means sparingly), direct instruction can be fine. We just need to leave room for students to make sense of the math: turn & talks, reflections from students, questions. I don’t want to teach math from on high where I hold all the knowledge and students have to take it on faith that it is how I say it is. .

    Thanks for reading and commenting! So helpful to get feedback after putting all this out into the ether…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Totally agree on exploration too! i think the “what do you notice and wonder” can be a great incorporation to direct instruction. I was happy to learn I had done that for years in class without realizing it-it just seemed like a natural thing to do to make connections. Maybe I am not as direct anymore as I think I am-still teacher led with some things though. Either way, you are making me think about it, which is great.

    I am about to blog about incorporating Socratic seminars into math, which was a great way to incorporate different types of discussion with problem solving. Check it out if you are interested😊 It will be long though-fair warning…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Annie – I love your writing. Your deep and careful thoughts about math teaching are well beyond what I usually see from a “4th” year teacher. I especially resonated with your thoughts on “disjointed lessons”. As a 23 year math teacher I think that has been one of my biggest fears and why it took me so long to abandon textbooks! Your enthusiasm and vulnerability are contagious. I look forward to reading even more from you! I am THRILLED to find out you teach at Keewaydin – where I went to school in 5th and 6th grade (bc they closed down Minnehaha Public Elementary).


  5. Thank you, Kathryn, that means a lot to me. It’s pretty scary to put all of this out there, but the response that I’ve gotten has mostly been, “me too”, which is heartening. So helpful to know that I’m not alone in all of these fears.
    I love Keewaydin, too. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be there next year- I’ll be at Southwest. I did meet with the new math teacher, though. Talked her ear off for a couple hours. She seems fantastic. They’re in good hands.


  6. Hahaha! I love your voice in this piece. I agree that sometimes teachers go abroad to play and travel. However, many more of us are educators in every sense of the word and go abroad for a variety of reasons. See my post on this – – for MiddleWeb.

    On another note, I love your honesty about these “unshakeable beliefs” we sometimes hold and hold onto when our experience and expertise say otherwise. That’s why there is nothing set in stone in education, but lots of wonderful, effective ideas (although, admittedly, there are many more that really have no place in education) that we use as needed. So, what and how we teach depend on the learning situation, the students, the goal of the unit and the lessons. I look forward to reading your other posts on this.


  7. Annie – what a great post. Thank you for your honesty – I can say that after 10 years of teaching, and being named a Master Teacher by Math for America, I still suffer from impostor syndrome with greater frequency that I care to admit. As teachers, we sometimes have a Sisyphian task (I love that phrase), pushing against everything that works against us teaching to our ideals. But you have to know that you reach students, every day, and that is worth everything. Keep writing great stuff! (And I’m sorry I didn’t see this until now!!)


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