Monday, 16 December 2013

TCH: Talking MTBoS Is Hard

Pic by Errol of Debs and Errol
Intro: Back in September, I signed up for "Explore MTBoS", an eight week event connecting math educators online. This is the eighth post connected to that event. If this is your first time on my blog, welcome! For the record, I post about writing in addition to math teaching. I also have a second blog, "Taylor's Polynomials", a story about personified math. Find it here:

This final mission came from Sam Shah (@samjshah). It asked us to share something we found out through the missions with someone else.

You know what? I sensed it would be something like that. Yet this is not merely something outside my comfort zone, it's out of synch with my personality. I'm posting now (three weeks later) because I hate to think I gave up in Week 7... plus I wonder if anyone else out there thinks like me.


Here's the short explanation for why this mission felt beyond me: It involves me telling people that I know better.

Please keep reading through the longer explanation.

There's a club for everything these days.

Let me start with what I'm NOT saying:
1) I'm NOT saying that "telling people I know better" was the intent of the mission. If anything, the intent was the exact opposite - it's right in the title! This mission was to reach out, to offer new ideas, to tell people that there was a place online where they could go for support, possibly even for new friendships. To share as equals, not to preach from on high.

2) I'm NOT saying that this was a bad mission. Again, I even sensed it would be something like this. If you've just seen a great movie, don't you want to tell others about it, and encourage them to go? If you're part of a wonderful community, don't you want others to join in, particularly ones whose opinions you value and respect? The motivation here is sound. The goal is noble.

3) I'm NOT saying that the MTBoS (Math Twitter BlogOSphere) is itself any sort of high authority. It's a group of wonderful people with thoughts on mathematics education. One may even aspire to be like some of those individuals. It is NOT a group spouting the godspell which others need to follow, and if my post causes you to see the MTBoS that way, I'm painting an unclear picture.

With that said, here's what I AM saying.


I've posted before about my introvert tendencies. I don't usually initiate conversations without cause. The reason may be anything from "I need help" to "How was your day" to "We could both use a laugh". That said, if I'm bringing up things from the MTBoS in conversation, there must be a point to it. After all, if someone randomly told ME about it, I'd be wondering why. And not all of my thoughts would be positive.

You: "There's this community of educators online."
Me: (I'm aware, I would have joined if I'd wanted to, are you blind?)
Me: (I wasn't aware, but I'm going insane here, how can I possibly make the time for something else, shoot me now.)

You: "I saw this lesson and think you might like it."
Me: (I have no idea how to pull this activity off and who are you to tell me this is better, if it is I hate you because you're better than me.)
Me: (I wish I had time to find things like this, I'm so envious, I hate my life, I'm doing everything wrong.)

You: "There's this great blog you might enjoy."
Me: (It's great but I don't have time for it, why do you taunt me, and why is everyone so much cooler than me, sob.)
Me: (It's not great at all, why don't you understand what makes me tick, you're hopeless, I'm never talking to you again.)

I'm exaggerating for dramatic effect. But here's a personality consideration: when you're on the OUTSIDE of a community, and someone keeps talking to you about it, which of the following are you more inclined to say? "Bring me along next time" or "If you like them so much, why not go talk to them instead of bothering me"?

I feel like it's MORE difficult to talk to someone externally than internally, which seemed to be required here. Am I the only one with that problem?


A lot of the things I see online, I couldn't hope to pull off. (At least not at my current ability level.) So if someone came to me saying "try this 3-act in your class!" my knee jerk reaction would be "why must you add so much more stress to my life?!" I do not think like you. I know where my strengths are, and while I may be working on my weaknesses, jumping into the deep end is not the way I deal with them.

In other words, in my world, I'll approach YOU, not the other way around. In the end, if the lesson screws up, I only want to have MYSELF to blame, not to have you as a scapegoat. I want to be thinking "This went badly, what did I do wrong", not "Stupid Mario, it's all his fault for saying this would work in my class". Because if the roles were reversed... can you say that NO part of you would be thinking "that stupid Greg, bringing me this lesson"?

So I guess this mission doesn't feel like a random act of kindness so much as a targeted act of kindness, and I'm not good at targeting.

Meaning that, while I'm self aware, I am not good at judging the strengths and weaknesses of others. Of course, if you're one of those people who can look at a task and go "Justin would be able to do GREAT things with this!", kudos to you. But I think that even if I DID have a sense, I am not confident enough to say "here's something!" to someone - unless, again, a request is directly made of me.

Yes, I'm absolving myself of responsibility. But that's because, frankly, I don't feel like I'm enough of an expert to be diagnosing in the first place... therefore you'd have every right to use me as a scapegoat.


Consider that one student (or group of students) in your class who are spoiling the learning for everyone else. If you got rid of them, then not only would the whole class be easier to control, the other students would probably feel a sense of relief as well. I... am not able to kick them out. Not yet. Maybe they go in the hall. Maybe not even that.

Yes, I'm saying I would rather run around and try to teach 19 students individually, than to kick out student number 20 and talk to the 19 students as a whole. I am the authority figure in the room with a bunch of teenagers, and yet I hesitate to exert maximum power. Now, do you think this is going to be any better with a bunch of educators?

Don't get me wrong, I see the big picture. Would everyone be better off if I took action? Probably. Logically, should I do/say something? Probably. Emotionally, am I there? Hell no. Because I don't know your story. Because maybe there's emotional or spiritual reasons for your hesitation that I'll trigger, because maybe there's things happening at your home and my speaking up will make you think I don't care, or that I only care about your work life, or perhaps my attempt to help will only make things worse for you, and I - can't - deal - with - doing - that - to - you.

I don't deny that sometimes, we simply have to dish it out. The same way this mission was asking me to dish it out. But I can't. Because even if this dish is a decadent chocolate layer cake, maybe I'm being insensitive to your gluten allergy that I should have known about if not for my inability to see what's apparently bleeding obvious to everyone else.

Of course, this is coming from someone who has delivered Professional Development before. So perhaps the problem is that I'm not as passionate about the MTBoS as I am about Music or Personification. Making me think, was passion a requirement to be able to fulfill this mission?


To finish up, let me rephrase. My problem isn't so much that Mission 8 involved "telling people that I know better". It's more that it involved telling people "I know something you don't", which automatically elevates me to a position of authority I don't want, in a conversation I'd rather not have, over values that I may not even share. ... Of course, I do tend to overanalyze things.

This just feels too unnatural.

But nothing's impossible. Twitter did happen to come up in conversation with someone on our Mathematics Council, at an informal holiday dinner. I mentioned the MTBoS, because it fit neatly into an already ongoing conversation, and thus there was less chance of me being seen as making any kind of judgmental observation.

Does that count? I suppose I have the authority to say that counts, the same way I tweaked things to complete Mission 3. So let's say it does.

That will put to rest what was, for me, the absolute hardest of the eight missions... even though for many of you, I imagine it was all too easy.


  1. I get every word of what you are saying here.

    Allow me to share the spin I put on initiating conversations with colleagues.

    Me: I am going to try a new lesson. Can we sit down together so you can help me think this through?
    Colleague (flattered): Sure.
    Me: OK. So I got this from The teacher who wrote about it reported amazing student engagement but I'm not so sure it's going work exactly that way in my classroom with my students. So let's work the task and you can help me think about how our kids will respond.

    Et cetera

    The idea is that I am not telling my colleagues about a resource that *they* need to use; instead I am asking for help integrating this resource into my own teaching.

    All of that said, I did not sign up for, nor complete, any missions. I wholeheartedly support the ExploreMTBoS as a worthy enterprise, and it's not really my bag. Kudos for completing your missions!

    Is there a badge for that?

    1. That... is brilliant. Not only because of the way it opens up the conversation, but also because I'm the type who DOES need the help implementing a lot of the things I see online that are outside of my "comfort zone". Thing is, I'm not inclined to want to bother others with my problems. I don't know why it didn't occur to me that things run both ways. Thus with one strategy tip, I think you've turned lose-lose into win-win. (The only glitch is the difficulty in synching up time with colleagues, but then that's simply the way scheduling comes down.) Thanks!

      Thanks also for the congrats - writing is just my thing. Though I don't think there's badges. Perhaps I should design one. Oh, and the website seems to be down. ^.-

    2. Glad you found the thoughts helpful. I agree that the time thing is tough. I find that approaching such scheduling as relationship building makes it easier for me to make it happen (as opposed to thinking about it as lesson planning time, which—let's be honest—I can do much faster without collaboration).