The Realy Teacher

My mom was visiting this week and we got to reminiscing.  A math teacher herself, we always have a lot to chat about.  Today we were laughing about my first day as a “real” teacher.  Well maybe not a real teacher – I was reminded enough that first day that I was not, in fact, the real teacher.  But it was my first day as a substitute – a paid gig.  I was excited and nervous, but mainly excited.  In for the day in a grade four class in my hometown of New Waterford, Nova Scotia.  Grade 4’s were scary.  Younger than my comfort zone and probably super attached to their “real” teacher and their routines.  I was going to mess it up.  I was going to mess it up huge.

I was shown a bright, beautiful classroom with rows of tiny furniture.  Excited.  That’s how I felt.  This is what I wanted: my own class to decorate and organize and breathe life into.  Then  I found the sub plan.  It was a book.  I could feel my pulse start to race…back to nervous.  There was no time to read any of this.  I saw the schedule, a list of spelling words, found a novel, and some math questions.  We would be fine?  We would be fine.  I took a few deep breaths and practiced my opening introduction and reviewed my expectations out loud to the empty desks.  A throat cleared.  A teacher from the neighboring room was there to show me where to collect my students from the line up outside.  She grinned as I turned a deep purple.  “You’ll do fine,” she reassured me.  

The day was a roller coaster of ups and downs.  I used the wrong colour star stickers on the spelling chart and “ruined the whole thing” according to a little blond girl with curls.  A few minutes before recess I tried to get the kiddos into their outside clothes and out to the playground only to discover that they needed easily five times the minutes I allotted to get ready.  The bell rang to come in as we were making our way out.  “Substitutes!” one little boy sighed rolling his eyes.  Hilarious.  I decided to take them out anyway and we had the playground to ourselves.  “Best recess eva!” a few said.  Back inside, the students couldn’t agree on where the teacher left off in their read aloud book so I read one that I had brought, Socks for Supper by Jack Kent.  We talked for a long time about the story and drew pictures until lunch time.  Just when I thought I was winning them over the same know-it-all girl told me, “You were supposed to take us to the bathroom 15 minutes ago to wash our hands!”  Yikes.  Tough crowd.

The afternoon was better.  The kids had music and gym and I went along with them as part of the class.  They thought that was hilarious and awesome.  I thought they were hilarious and awesome so of course I wanted to hang out with them.  “You’re better as a student”, one of the kids said.  I decided to take that as a compliment.  The last class of the day was math.  That seemed odd to me.  I probably had that wrong.  No – that was the schedule.  A closer look revealed that the end of every day was math.  Interesting.  I told the kids that the best part of the day had finally arrived – math!  They groaned.  Some even looked nervous.  Wow.  Weren’t these kids too young to have an opinion (never mind a negative one) about math?  Apparently not.  I powered through.  I decided to ignore the lesson plan of drilling times tables and played a math game, had them guess my “Mystery Number” and then write as many questions as they could that had an answer of 5.  We ended the day on a high note.  Lots of sharing, happy faces, relaxed postures.  “You are better at math than the other things”, my biggest critic relented.  

Learning from my earlier recess debacle I had those kids packed up and ready for the bus in record time.  As they filed past me one quiet little girl shoved a note in my hands.  It read, “Thank you for teaching me.  You make my work easier.  Too bad you weren’t the realy teacher.  From Sarah”. 
Yup – a pretty perfect day.

On Becoming a Math Person…

I may be a middle school math teacher now, but my math story began a long time ago.  It didn’t begin as a love story, but it could have.  It should have.  I am one of the lucky ones.  My experience with math keeps getting sweeter.  While it admittedly took a few decades longer than ideal to ripen, I stuck around long enough to reap the rewards.  There are others out there that did not make it:  parents, teachers of other subjects, friends.  We all know them.  They say things like, ”I’m no good with numbers”, or “I’m not a math person”.  Others nod knowingly like “math people” actually exist and sympathize that they too weren’t lucky enough to get the math gene or whatever the latest urban myth is about being capable of curiosity, reasoning and relationships.  So what can I do to change perceptions?  Perhaps by sharing my story and trying to connect with other elusive “math people” we can figure this out together.

 I have always been good at math.  My teachers and friends told me this was because my mom was a math teacher.  I believed them.  It didn’t matter that my math work at home was probably the standard forced homework that everyone did at that point in their lives.  I was a math person – it was settled.  Grade 3, Mrs Edwards class:  I remember taking my turn, standing in front of the class, reciting my multiplication tables and getting a gold star on the classroom chart.  I did so well in my classwork I got rewarded by being allowed to tidy up the coatroom.  Message received:  If you can memorize some facts, follow some steps and get through this drudgery you can have some actual fun like straightening the shoes!

Junior high was more of the same.  I knew I could do the work.  But it was just that – work.  In high school I took the advanced classes.  I analyzed graphs, knew my trig identities, applied the right procedures and found the correct solutions.  I checked the necessary math courses off my list so I could move on to the fun stuff.

Fast forward a few more years than I care to count and I am a math coach and teacher.  I am still a math person.  Or maybe finally a math person.  Not because of my mom, my multiplication facts or my memorizing skills.  I am happy and proud to say that I have found the joy, satisfaction, and beauty in math.  I now know there is so much more to mathematics than what I had learned as a young student.  What happened between then and now?  Well lots!  I have had some experiences that have fundamentally changed what I believe math education could and should be.  I guess you could say I have actually become the math person everyone believed me to be from the start.  In the posts that follow I’ll share some of those experiences.

I plan to use this venue to put some ideas out there, share some lessons, and reflect on their success.  The best collaborations that I have been a part of have been motivated educators figuring things out together.  Want to work on something?  Reach out!  I hope you will stick with me – give me some feedback.  Share your ideas and experiences too.  Let me know what I should still consider in the lessons that I share, or what improvements or adjustments should be made.  I am committed to getting better.  Committed to learning.  What you will find here are lessons that offer students choices and challenge learners to prove, discuss, and persist.  And of course, perhaps most importantly, my creations will promote joyful mathematics through play.