Students > Teaching Math

I just finished It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching by Tom Rademacher, and I have a lot of feelings. It had me hooked pretty early on.

It had me hooked for several reasons. Tom (I’m pretty sure I’m good with first names here, we follow each other on twitter, so we’re basically best friends) kicked his book off by noting several things that matter a lot to me: humor, Race is necessary to talk about in teaching, you must teach to write about teaching, and no research. He also curses a lot, which I appreciate.

Teaching is a shit show. It’s a wreck. It has been necessary for me to teach middle school boys that drawing on a girl’s face is not effective flirting. I once seriously considered making the sign, “Please do not eat Clorox Wipes” because it would save me not having to repeat myself so often. No matter what you do, Hot Cheetos dust is everywhere. Penis drawings are an accepted fact of life.

Teaching is also a painfully beautiful, human activity. My students and I cry, for good reasons and bad, often. There have been harsh, unnecessary words from both of us (more often from me), and ugly truths are revealed. I have been called some names I’m not willing to retype here, and I have been told I will forever be someone’s hero.

Because it is all of these things, teaching is beloved by Hollywood, and I really cannot emphasize how much I hate that. There are a lot of teaching movies I loved before I became a teacher, and now I detest them all. I hate talking about teaching with people who are not teachers, because unless you are in it, it is nearly impossible to get right. It has happened more than once that a well meaning person has praised me for the work teachers do to “save those kids!” Setting aside (ha!) the ugly implications of what they mean by “those” kids, just how wrong people are about that makes me equal parts nauseous and angry. I hate talking to non-teachers about teaching, because they don’t get it. So I don’t do it. Except when I do. Which is most of the time. It’s like people who are wrong on the internet. You know you shouldn’t engage with them, but they. are. just. so. WRONG.

I say all of this because while reading It Won’t Be Easy I often thought, “I gotta get _____ to read this.” Rademacher is brutally honest about teaching and articulates a lot of things I think about but struggle to say. I want a lot of my non-teaching friends to see that.

In the first, Rademacher is really honest about being a White teacher. Because I am also a White teacher struggling to figure out what that means and how it affects my students, I really appreciate that. Rademacher acknowledges that he really wants to exclude himself from the “White men” category, but that doing so is exactly the problem. He tells us about listening to a student who has had all White teachers for two years in a row and comments, “It’s just too many White people.” Rademacher acknowledges how uncomfortable it is to look this stuff in the face but how incredibly necessary it is to do.

Round about this chapter (White Guy Bullshit), is when I silently revoked my earlier wish that, “I gotta get _____ to read this.” I can see recommending this book to well meaning non-teachers and having them totally shut down at this chapter. But, of course, that’s the problem. As exhausting as it is to try honestly confront Race as a White teacher, it’s more exhausting to talk about Race to White people who aren’t actively trying to examine their Whiteness. But I have been trying to listen to the voices of People of Color and two things I have heard loud and clear is that if I want to be a White ally, I first have to own my Whiteness, and then I have talk to other White people about Race. I have this insane privilege that when it gets to be too much I can just keep being a White person who doesn’t have to think about Race all the time. My Students of Color don’t have that privilege. The discomfort of White people is something we need to accept and not run away from because People of Color are uncomfortable all the damn time. I know that because my Students of Color have told it to me over, and over, and over again. I don’t get to judge or excuse or try to forget that. I have to listen.

Rademacher also called me out on the fact that I do not engage nearly as much with my school as I should. I have avoided as many meetings as possible, do not know the names of most of the adults in the building, and am not advocating for my students outside the classroom. Fair enough. I’ve been called. I’m going to think about how I can change some of that this next year. My students are not best served when I try to pretend that things outside of my classroom do not affect them or me. I cannot do everything, I know that. But I can do more.

Rademacher is also unwavering in the fact that while yes, content is important and stuff, students are more important. When I think about some of the worst moments I’ve had as a teacher they are often when I have insisted that a worksheet is the most important thing a kid does that day, when both the student and I know that’s a lie. Times when I’ve noticed a kid is really emotionally upset, but I have been too wrapped up in myself to give that kid the space and time to deal with it. Or even just acknowledge that its happening.

I have been thinking more and more about what my actual goals are in the classroom. If you spend more than 10 minutes with me, I don’t think you’ll have any doubt of my love for or dedication to math as a subject. I spend a lot of time talking to teachers about teaching. About how to approach this standard vs the next standard. A lot of those conversations are fascinating, and I can totally get into a rabbit hole about how to best introduce students to quadratics or philosophize about how deeply my students need to understand the concept of zero. Unfortunately, as fun as all of that is, teaching math is less important than my students. These students we interact with every day are people. There are humans in my classroom and if I really think about it, my best days of teaching are when that fact is front and center. I’ll sometimes talk to non-teachers about my classes and how I changed the topic that day because kids couldn’t care less about the boring standard but cared that day about something else. The intense fear that my students will probably fail the ACT is often the first reaction of said non-teacher. Sigh.

Students do not learn in classes where they are not acknowledged as people. They might memorize a few things to get you off their back, but they will not open up and really start thinking in a place where they cannot be themselves. After the election, my kids needed space to talk about that. I could have shoved a worksheet down their throats, but good god, why? They weren’t going to learn math that day. Even less emotionally fraught situations like when a kid asks a question that’s interesting but has nothing to do with what I’m supposed to do that day, you bet your butt I’m going to help my students explore that if that’s what they’re genuinely interested in. To heck with the lesson plan.

Yes, yes, I’ll make sure they can solve equations. Fine. But the school year is actually pretty long and there’s plenty of time for that. We, as teachers, get so caught up in ourselves and our lesson plans that we sometimes forget that the students in our rooms are people. We have to get through this standard and figure out how to grade a billion things and we need data on how our students are doing for god’s sake!

I have never had a kid say to me, “Ms. Perkins, I really want to do this math because you told me how important this worksheet is and I really want to improve my score on that standardized test.” I have (actually) had kids say to me, “Ms. Perkins, I do not care about this stuff at all, but I’ll do the math because of you.” The not quite articulated bit there is that they do it because they know I care about them. The content stuff comes along, it really does. But when I’m not doing a good job of letting them know I care about them, guess what? No math. Game over.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t days when I really do push kids down one path when they want to do something else. There are. Rademacher does a good job of helping to draw the line between teacher and friend in his book, too. Like it or not, those are totally separate things, and there are actions we have to take as teachers that we would not take as friends, and that is as it should be. Our students are humans, but they are also children. They’re going to do stupid, ridiculous things and we have a responsibility to be the grown ups in the room. It’s just that some people (these are the people I mentioned before who are WRONG) think that being a grown up means being in charge and controlling everything. When really, being the grown up means helping to build a safe place where kids can learn and figure out both how to factor a quadratic and how to be a good human.

Rademacher’s book is really good. There are a ton of other, fantastic books out there about teaching, but this is the first one I have personally read that was as honest about all of the things I think we need to be honest about and put front and center the fact that our students are people first and students second. You should probably all read it. I’ll lend you my copy if you like.

Author: Ms. P

Math Teacher in Minneapolis, MN.

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