I remember vividly, my first Aha! moment as an educator. It came early in my career as a classroom teacher. At that point, I had the blind confidence of youth and believed I pretty much knew all there was to know about the teaching of mathematics. After all, I had aced math all through school. On top of that, my mom was a high school math teacher. Many teachers and peers through the years identified this as a critical factor in my math success. As they pointed out, math was practically baked into my DNA! And so, with my ideal genetics and stellar report cards, I set out to pass on my know-how to the next generation. I was great at doing math, surely I would be awesome at teaching math right?
My third year found me teaching Grade 9 Math at A.J. Smeltzer Junior High. This would be a breeze for a math maven like myself! The current topic was algebra, or more specifically, solving equations. I broke it down. I spelled it out. I showed students how to solve step by step. I did a great job – or so I thought. What I did not anticipate was that some students just did not get it. No matter how many times I explained the procedure; no matter how many examples I tried; I still had a few blank stares. My voice got slower and louder and still nothing. It was about that time that the math leader in the building asked if I had tried using alge-tiles. Perhaps she had overheard my venting in the staffroom. Alge-tiles? It was my turn for the blank stare.
I learned that alge-tiles are concrete materials or math manipulatives that can be used to model algebraic concepts. I was skeptical. I didn’t use math manipulatives as a learner and I did just fine. Practice and repetition was all I needed as a student. Did we really need manipulatives? I had a bunch still to cover in my yearly plan. Did I have time for alge-tiles? How do you even use alge-tiles? The teacher, probably sensing my hesitation, mentioned that there was usually a question on the Provincial Assessment that involved alge-tiles. That was what finally pushed me forward. I wanted my students to be prepared. Whether they were necessary for understanding or not, I decided to give it a go. I found a dusty box of alge-tiles in the haphazard bookroom and I dug in. My students and I followed some given examples together, using the concrete materials to model the terms and the actions of the operations. To my surprise, I saw light bulbs of understanding turning on in those students that had not yet been successful. I was sold. The following year I began the unit with concrete materials. Oh what a difference! There was deeper understanding, meaningful connections, and increased engagement from students. That gentle push toward professional learning from an experienced, and knowledgeable teacher helped me realize that there was so much more to mathematics than what I had learned as a student. I was driven to find out more. Back to the bookroom I went. I found 2 sided counters, fraction pieces, dice, three dimensional solids, and pattern blocks. I loaded up a trolley with class sets of goodies and rolled it down the hallway to the math leader’s classroom. I had a simple request, “Teach me?” This is what I consider the beginning of my professional learning as an inservice teacher. This drive to learn was based on a new and emerging personal belief: doing math and teaching math were related but not the same.
Now, twenty years later, it is fun to reflect on my learning journey and the significant signposts along the way. They mark impactful professional development, or PD of note. It began with a shift in my central beliefs. Once I acknowledged that teaching math was a complicated and intricate craft that required professional learning even for successful doers of math; I could confidently engage with the work of enhancing my pedagogy. While some PD offered meaningful but minute tweaks to my current practice, other PD steered me in entirely new directions. These sessions had me reexamining my teaching philosophy by opening up pathways I didn’t know existed, and fundamentally changed the way I think, plan, and operate. Sessions varied from keynote speeches where I was one of hundreds in attendance to small gatherings of colleagues in the library after school. Some were self directed and others were dictated by my employers. I have sought out learning opportunities on topics I was interested in and made time to engage, learn, test, and reflect. While self-directed sessions are personally meaningful, mandatory sessions often taught me lessons I did not know I needed. And while many professional learning sessions were an overwhelming success, others, I’ll admit, were a complete waste of time.
I find myself wondering a lot about the highs and lows of professional development. In my current role as a mathematics coach, I could be a participant or the lead in a professional development session. If teachers are taking time out of an already hectic schedule to meet with me to further their professional practice, I am determined to make it time well spent. I seek out opportunities to debrief with other educators after a shared session and compare experiences. Did they find the content relevant and useful? Was the delivery appealing? Will they look to incorporate into their practice the ideas, strategies, and methods contained in the session? Is further support required for successful implementation? With the expectation that I engage teachers regularly in professional learning, I am left to consider if success stories share common elements. This wondering has led me to my essential research question:
How can professional development be designed to enhance teacher practice and improve student learning in middle school mathematics?
I’ll let you know what I find out!