Thursday, October 28, 2021

Life As A Math Teacher: How I Teach

While I help my students master the same math that everyone else learns, I accomplish that goal in a fairly unconventional way. This story, as well as the others linked below, explain the method to my delicious algebra-flavored madness. 

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Me in college. With stuffed monkeys on my feet. Accounting majors know how to have fun. 

When I tell people that I'm a high school math teacher, I cringe.

I cringe because I know what dark and unflattering memories that phrase summons up in the average person's mind. 

A no-nonsense teacher stands at the front of a classroom, her back turned to the mass of students who are seated in desks arranged in a precise grid of rows and columns. She's scribbling a series of numbers and symbols that look more or less like indecipherable squiggles over every inch of the board, all the while tossing off perplexing statements like "let's graph that parabola by completing the square" and "of course, we'll want to rationalize that denominator." A few students follow along well enough to ask questions, but most sit in stunned silence, afraid to speak for fear of revealing their confusion. The lucky ones have parents who will help them sort out their homework later that evening; the rest will struggle along as best they can, learning first and foremost that they don't like math, and developing a lifetime aversion to numbers in general.

But I don't teach like that at all.

In college, I was not only an accounting major but a teaching assistant for the basic accounting class that all business majors were required to struggle through. Which earned me status as a double nerd.

Ideally, I sit down with my students, one or two at a time, at either their dining room table or mine. In a spiral notebook spread out on the table between us and using a brightly colored marker, I work through the new material, using plain English to explain, both verbally and in short, to-the-point notes on the paper. Keeping an eye on my student's facial expression and body language, I ask questions and weigh out their answers to determine if they truly understand what the heck I'm talking about.

In Covid times, when I can't safely meet with my students in person, I've transitioned this ritual to a video monologue. No, it's not the same as sitting side by side, and I really miss seeing my students' faces as they learn. But there are advantages too. Students can much more flexibly fit our class time into their schedules, and they can jump directly from instruction into homework, reducing that gap of time in which so much new learning can be lost. And we video chat once a week, in order to get a least a few precious minutes of face-to-face conversation.

But in person or on video, I express more than just my keen and unrelenting fascination with algebra. I do my best to show myself as an actual person. I tell stories about 

my life, 

my interests, 

my pets' ridiculous antics, 

my daughters' comings and goings, 

whatever out-of-the ordinary thing happened to me over the weekend. 

I employ a variety of far-fetched metaphors for teaching mathematical concepts, and I readily embrace disruptions, distractions, and endless side bars to my stream of math facts. 

I make every effort to get real with my students. I begin every interaction by asking, "How's your life?" and when I take the time to listen, I am often rewarded with considerable honesty and sometimes, the aching vulnerability of what it's like to be a teenager. With a careful filter, I share truth about my own life, and show my students the respect of a genuine exchange.

During Christmas break, accounting majors go skiing at Vail. No, I did not calculate any angles of elevation or depression on the slopes. But you know I was tempted. 

These off-topic moments are not diversions or time taken away from the task at hand. Taking the time and effort to build real relationships with my students is the secret sauce of my recipe for teaching math, and I've come to recognize this part of my work as the key to student's successful mastery of high school mathematics. 

My students must work very hard to learn all that I'm trying to teach them. And honestly, these delightful young Padawan will only give me that maximum effort if they know - and truly believe - that I care about them. 

So relationship comes before math, and that truth is essential to how I teach. 

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More stories about my philosophies of teaching, learning, and factoring trinomials:

My Hero

How I Teach

Discovering My How

My Why

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