Thursday, October 28, 2021

Life Of A Math Teacher: Discovering My How

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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^ Somehow, my daughters all survived their years as my math-teaching guinea pigs, and went on to live satisfying lives. My first born spent a year living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before building a career in retail. 

Way back at the very beginning, when I first started teaching math, my approach was bare bones. To say the very least.

Basically, my math classes consisted of my middle-school age daughters sitting up in their bedrooms every afternoon, staring at their textbooks and trying to figure out each new lesson, then wandering around the house looking for me when they couldn't make sense of it.

Which was pretty much every day, bless their frustrated little hearts.

As I scoured their textbooks for clues - usually while stirring a pot of pasta or folding laundry - and eventually pinned down some answers and attempted to recapture my daughters' already frazzled attention, a thought occurred to me.

There has to be a better way.

^ My second-born has worked for Abercrombie & Fitch since she was seventeen years old, and is currently climbing the corporate ladder at their home office in Columbus, Ohio. 

When she hit high school, my first-born daughter tried taking an algebra class at our school for homeschoolers, and we learned some interesting things.

Traditional math classes are typically paced according to the lowest common denominator. Which meant, in this situation, that the kids who didn't understand how to do their homework asked a lot of questions during class time, and the teacher, bless her frustrated heart, spent so much time answering those questions that she didn't have adequate time to teach the new lesson. So then each night when my daughter sat down to do her homework, the new material was utter mystery and she needed my help to learn the new concepts and get the homework done. Next day in class, the students whose parents didn't help them were as lost as before, and full of new questions that once again took up the entire class time. As we struggled through this cycle again and again, the thought came back to me. 

There definitely needs to be a better way.

And when her friends in that math class noticed her progress and began to ask her how in the heck she was learning things that the teacher had not yet taught, my daughter brought her friends to me and asked me to teach them too. A little group of us began sitting together on the floor in the hall and learning math together, and as they eventually came round to laughing and smiling and happily saying, "Oh, now it all makes sense!" I was sure of it.

There IS a better way to learn math. And bit by bit, I was stumbling upon it. 

What if a math class was an emotionally safe place where students worked hard but also had fun?

What if math students were respectfully held to high expectations but also given all the support and extra help they needed to succeed?

What if a math teacher was less of a lecturer at the front of the classroom type and more of an algebraic spirit guide?

And what if I got a bit more proactive about my daughters' math educations, and took on the challenge  of building a creative and innovative math program that would make learning not just effective but fun, and also prepare them for college level math?

^ After six years teaching English in Asia, my third bird now runs her global empire out of our home, teaching her native tongue to adults all around the world via the internet. 

Now, granted, I have always been comfortable with numbers. From a tender age, math came easy to me, and when my university academic advisor took one look at my math grades, she peered at me from over my paperwork and said, "A woman who understands math can do anything. But your best choices are engineering or accounting."  

I chose accounting and loved every minute of my exciting and adventurous career as a public accountant.

No, I am not being ironic. Accountants are nowhere nearly as dull as we like to let on.

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All of which is to say that I came at this new algebra teaching assignment of mine with perhaps not a ton of familiarity with high school math, but an easy comfort with numbers and the unshakable faith of an experienced homeschool mom who could whip up a new curriculum in any subject with one arm tied behind her back and a toddler on her lap.

And I'd already found a great partner. Bless his heart, John Saxon, former Navy test pilot and math textbook author extraordinaire, had written a groundbreaking, straightforward, yet rigorously challenging algebra and geometry curriculum that had taken the homeschooling world by storm, and my kids were already using it.

I knew I had the perfect content at my fingertips. 

And, conscientious course designer that I was, I knew exactly what the goal of my program would be. Our home state of Washington offers high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to attend community college classes for free. Mhmm. Zero tuition. Not only do the students earn high school credit for these so-called Running Start classes, but also college credit. If they play their cards right, students can graduate from high school and earn an Associate's two-year degree at the same time, leapfrogging right into junior level status at university. 

If I could get my math students through the full Saxon curriculum by the end of their sophomore year, they would then have two full years to take free math classes at the college level, ticking off university prerequisites and - depending on their majors - fulfilling all the math work they would need to earn their bachelor's degrees. 

^ Ever a dreamer and a scientist at heart, my fourth is still searching for her life's work. I have no doubt that when she finds it, it will be magnificent. 

With a strong curriculum in my quiver and a clear target in sight, I knew my what and my when.

And now I turned my attention back to how.

What if a math class was an emotionally safe place where students worked hard but also had fun?

What if math students were respectfully held to high expectations but also given all the support and extra help they needed to succeed?

What if a math teacher was less of a lecturer at the front of the classroom type and more of an algebraic spirit guide?

In other words, what if math was taught with exacting standards of academic excellence but - first and foremost - with compassion and care and creativity and humor and empathy for the humans who are attempting to learn some complicated concepts during a period of great mental and emotional development and change?

And that's how I discovered my how for teaching math. 

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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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