What Matters to Students is Not Always What Matters to Us

It was teacher appreciation week last week. If you are reading this, there is a really high probability you are a teacher (I can’t say 100%, my mom always reads these). Allow me to begin with, I appreciate you so much. I really do. Especially because by reading this blog, you’re part of MTBoS, and MTBoS is how I make it through the school year most of the time. Thank you.

Last week, I posted about ways I feel I have failed as a teacher and a particular moment when I was really down on myself. What resulted was a gosh darn DELUGE of teachers responding with stories of their own down moments and their own struggles. If I had any doubt before, I do not now. I know I am not alone.

So. After a post of “gosh it sucks and I’ve sure been down”, allow me to strike a more hopeful note. Perhaps to suggest ways that while it may not FEEL like you’re getting through, that perhaps you are. As always, I am only able to do this because of my phenomenal students.

Last Monday (hilariously right after my post about feeling like a failure as a teacher) I had something spectacularly kind and thoughtful happen to me. I’ve been going back and forth all week about whether or not I should share it here, but I’ve decided it’s worth sharing for a few reasons.

  1. It only happened because of one remarkable student who has recently decided to try being more outspoken. More on her in a second.
  2. I think it highlights a difference between what we, as teachers, value or notice, and what actually matters to our students. We should probably think about this difference more often.
  3. It’s often hard to genuinely know what’s happening in your classes. Telanna just posted a beautiful reflection about digging deeper into students thoughts on math class which I think we can all learn from. You should go read it.

To explain what happened, I need to introduce you to Amira (not her real name). Amira hasn’t had a very good time in math class in the past (with one year as a notable exception), and she and I have formed a bond this year. Another student called it “teacher-student goals”. This bond came about because of her reaction to the Mathematician Project, my theft of Sara’s 61 seconds, and several long conversations with her and other students after school. I know this because she has specifically cited each of these as reasons she trusts me. It’s important to note here: none of the reasons I can identify for why she and I have such a good relationship has ANYTHING to do with math or how I teach math. The result, however, is that she is trying more in math class. Her skills are greatly improved from where they were at the beginning of the year, and I can see that her work effort has increased. She’s started sharing ideas more with peers, albeit still rather reservedly. She is an extraordinary young woman.

If you were to sit in on our class, you would not pick up on this. I sure didn’t. In fact, for most of the year I thought she was either bored, angry with me, or thoroughly uninterested in class. I now know that to be false, but it’s taken me a long time and conversations outside of class to fully understand (not sure I’m totally there yet even now) how she engages in my class. This has lead me to think: It may be that students are actively engaging in my class and I don’t know it. With a sample size of one, I didn’t have much evidence for this applying to other students, but my sample size got a little bit larger last week.

Here’s what happened last Monday:

About 2 minutes into class, a counselor and the assistant principal came in to class and asked if they could see Amira. They then asked if I could get the class’s attention, which I did, figuring there was some announcement of an after school activity or some such. What followed was one of the kindest and most thoughtful things I have ever experienced. The counselor said that some of my students, for teacher appreciation week, had arranged to show their appreciation of me. After a brief bustle, 6 of my students were standing in the front of the classroom and, in turn, each of them made a statement about what my class had meant to them and why they appreciate me as a teacher. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember most of what they said because I was crying (happy tears, people). I do remember a couple of things worth discussing, however:

  • Several of them admitted that they still don’t like math. That, math is, in fact, still really hard and kind of the worst. But they said being in my class made them want to get better at it. They said they were grateful I saw them as people, and that it’s obvious I care about them all individually. They appreciate that although they don’t always get it, I try to make sure they understand.  I’m not totally sure what teacher moves I have employed to convey these messages, but I’m glad they’ve gotten through.
  • I was surprised at who the 6 students were. It was explained later that all of them volunteered, which surprised me because two of them are students who walk into my class and regularly announce, upon arrival, how much they hate math. One of them is a student who seems so passively engaged that I might question if he knows my name. Maybe they were just trying to suck up – I admit that’s a possibility, but I really don’t think so. Their statements felt genuine. They admitted to not liking math, but said that being in a class with a teacher who saw them as people made them want to try. I can attest that I have seen all of them struggle and put in effort this year.
  • I was mocked several times for how much I love math. Concern was implied about my social life. It was clear, however, that this insane, obsessive love I have for the subject has at the very least made students curious about what I find so compelling. This is the closest students came to saying they appreciated me for something math related. I think that’s worth noting.

The last to speak was Amira, and I know what she said because the AP got a video. None of the things she cited were about math. All of them were about me seeing her as a person and valuing her as such. All of them made me cry.

The class presented me with a framed certificate (with the hilariously specific commendation of excellence in 1st hour math teaching), and a poster that kids had signed, many writing me short little notes. I was absolutely beside myself with gratitude. (And made fun of mercilessly for how easily it is that I am brought to tears.)

The counselor then explained it was Amira who had set the whole thing up. She had learned teacher appreciation week was coming and wanted to do something. As I mentioned before, she’s been working on speaking up more and finding ways to make herself heard, so I have no illusions that part of this ceremony was her exercising her own agency to make her voice heard at the school. I am, nevertheless, wildly grateful she chose to do so in this way.

After last week’s post and the number of people who have told me “don’t be so down on yourself,” let me take a moment to do just that. Let me say that I am so extraordinarily grateful that some of what I feel has been felt by my students. I am proud of myself – it’s not all in my head. The things I want to convey have been conveyed, at least in part. I’m doing some things right. (Let me also hasten to add that it’s not all roses. Later in the day I was accused of being “completely infuriating and impossible to understand.” Kids are good at keeping us humble and I know I’ve still got lots of work to do.)

As I said, I’ve been reflecting on this experience all week long, and here are the things I’ve come away with:

  1. What matters to me as a teacher (love of math, understanding, mastery of concepts, the flow of the lessons) is not necessarily what matters to students. I can’t speak for all of them, but certainly for the 6 that spoke and from several of the notes on the poster, I can say that what matters to my students, more than anything, is a feeling of belonging and acceptance. While I hope they benefit from well planned lessons, they don’t much care about them. They care about being seen as individuals worth spending time on.
  2. Sometimes the students you least expect might be the ones you’re reaching the most. The sample size is still small – 6+ students if I count the poster notes – but I was surprised by who spoke up. It’s not always readily obvious who is being impacted in our classrooms. This is something of a surprise to me. I wonder how I can get a greater understanding of it.
  3. Even when it feels like everything’s going wrong (and this is genuinely how I have felt in recent months), some things might not be as bad as they appear. I think it’s okay for us to go a little easier on ourselves.

I wish an experience like I had on Monday upon every teacher in the world. The work we do is hard and kids are not always that great at sharing their gratitude, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it. But for Amira, I would not have had this insight into my classroom. I am so extraordinarily grateful for it.

[An afterthought: I hope anyone reading this takes my posting it simply as a signal of my gratitude and not as an attempt to trumpet this kind thing that happened. I write on here to process things happening in my classes, and I wanted to share the reflections I’ve been having about what engagement looks like in class. All of my classes have a long way to go and it has not escaped me that while I got a glimpse at some students who’ve engaged that I didn’t know about, there are still many out there who have still not been reached. I’m really curious about how we can get a true picture of how students feel about math class. What is going through their heads? I wonder how many students I haven’t reached because I haven’t noticed how they’re engaging, and I wonder how many students I have even though they haven’t shown it.]

Author: Ms. P

Math Teacher in Minneapolis, MN.

One thought on “What Matters to Students is Not Always What Matters to Us”

  1. What an amazing story! Thank you sharing it with all of us! Too many days pass when I’m not sure what I’ve done was of any value (math or otherwise). You inspire me to continue to working to improve!


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