Wednesday, May 28, 2014

One Reason I Love Teaching Mathematics

One of the most satisfying parts of being a math teacher is to watch students begin the year unmotivated and "hating math" (an unfortunate reality during my time as a high school math teacher) and see them end the year motivated and proud of the work they have done, with a positive outlook and renewed excitement about their ability to succeed in future math classes.

Some teachers aspire to teach the upper level classes with the "best" students (make no mistake, I enjoy teaching these classes too). But, the most personal gratification for me comes from my work in my lowest level course - Integrated Algebra & Geometry (IAG). It is there that I think that I really have the greatest impact.

Today, I sent e-mails to the parents of two of my IAG students letting them know that their daughters had the two highest scores on the most recent test. Both of these students entered the year at the very bottom. Other teachers had commented that they were "challenging". I passed one of these students this morning in the hall and told her that she had gotten a 94% on the test. Another teacher walking in next to her actually said out load in a somewhat shocked voice, "Really?"

Over the year these two students (and others like them) have slowly started to have a little fun in math class and have begun to earn small victories. They managed to successfully complete their assignments, and they managed to submit work on-time and get full credit. They quickly learned that there was someone there to help them when they got stuck and to answer their e-mail at night as soon as they had a question. Every little bit of positive reinforcement they received stuck and further enhanced their self-confidence and desire to succeed in mathematics.

As the momentum of these small successes took hold it became even easier to keep it moving forward. The students kept working harder and harder, and wanted to experience more success (for themselves and, I like to think, a bit for me). They knew I cared about them and in return they wanted to show that they appreciated it and did not want to "let me down". This may sound a little self-centered, and it is only an hypothesis, but it rings true with my experience.

Yes, there were times I wanted to strangle each of them and there were also times that I was disappointed with their occasional lapses back into past, unproductive behaviors. But, at those times, I subtly (and usually with an edge of humor) let them know that I was disappointed. However, my actions always showed that I continued to care and that I still had confidence in their ability to succeed in my class and in mathematics.

Every year this same process (which I would like to make more formal) repeats itself with many of my previously low performing students - of course, more with some than with others. I think the process is enabled by the following actions:

  • Genuine care and interest in seeing students succeed in mathematics
  • Unwavering confidence in their ability to succeed in mathematics
  • High expectations of the quality of work from both students and myself
  • Excitement about mathematics in general, and a willingness to share it with students
  • Sense of humor and willingness to make math class fun, flexible and engaging - but serious too
  • Many opportunities to practice, improve and succeed - repeated as needed
  • Constant, timely (near real-time) feedback on performance and meeting (or not) expectations
  • A chance to recover when mistakes are made - and they are!
  • Availability to help - in class, throughout the school day, and online outside of school hours
  • Constant reinforcement - both with the students and their families
  • ...and others that I have not yet nailed down.
This is a fascinating topic that I intend to come back to in future posts.

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