Friday, April 2, 2021

Life Of A Math Teacher: Eccentric Connections

"The people that matter most to me are the people that are in my life. That's really who I learn from, and it's always a very personal kind of connection." -Missy Peregrym

One of the biggest problems with math education is that most math teachers come across as disconnected eccentrics.

In my humble opinion, of course.

To be fair, I'm sure that all math educators are fascinating people because math is a fascinating subject, so given their choice of study, they simply can't be all that bad.

But it's an undeniable truth a lot of ineffective math teachers do exist. 

The problem, I believe, is that many people who teach math are more interested in math than they are in teaching. Which is to say that they enjoy the finer points of 

graphing a line, 
factoring a quadratic expression, 
or simplifying a radical, 

but do not necessarily grasp the fundamentals of how we learn.

See what I said there?

How we learn.
Not how we teach.

Because no one can teach something to a student who doesn't want to learn.

Cannot be done.

As so-called teachers - especially those of us working with high schoolers - the best we can hope to do is open our dear students' minds to the possibility that what we have to say just might be interesting and/or useful, and then pray to the almighty gods of teen hormones that they will give a rip.

But even then, before we can ever expect them to listen to us, we teachers need to show our students that we care.

Well, yes. The entire venture of modern education rests on the cornerstone that teachers must genuinely care about their students.

Not just as obedient learning machines

or the "adults of tomorrow" 

but as actual humans of infinite worth and value, 

exactly as they are,

in this moment. 

We teachers - especially us math teachers, who are often perceived as robotic and unemotional - simply must take time to build human connections with our students, on the daily. In real, tangible ways, we must demonstrate to our students in ways that make sense to them that we actually care about them as human beings.

Honestly, I love this part of my job. 

Like many - but sadly, not all - high school teachers, I genuinely enjoy spending time with teenagers. I find them to be equal parts fascinating, hilarious, adorable, and heartachingly vulnerable. If you have ever spent time with me as my student, or eavesdropped on me when I'm with my students, you know that there is a great deal of rollicking good fun that goes along with my teaching style, and it's completely intentional. Nonsensical horseplay is at the core of what makes my approach successful. It's one of the best ways I show my students that I care. 

But look. Covid has ruined all that. 

My classroom antics have been reduced to late-night rantings on YouTube, often involving me dashing away from the camera to chase my dog out of various ridiculous food-stealing scenarios, and allow for very little exchange with my students or attention to the details of their lives.

And by very little, I mean none. 

Our weekly one-on-one video chats help. It's lovely to have a moment with each student, to get a chance to ask how their actual life is going. Especially given the uptick in mental health challenges that these Covid teens are facing, I try to bring my A game of intentional care into these short moments of connection.

But lately, I've been feeling the need to do something more.

So I've turned to my favorite tool of dispensing love and care - the homemade postcard.

Every week - usually when I'm killing time between my students' video chats - I drag out a few art supplies and a handful of blank cardstock, and whip up a little something to pop into the mail.

I provide a quick update on each student's progress, and offer a few words of encouragement and praise. 

These little scraps of paper are a far cry from the fun moments we share when we are meeting face-to-face, my students and I. But while Covid rages on, I'm doing everything I can to keep up the eccentric connections. 

* * * * *

My love of postcards is fairly well documented.

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