Friday, 16 May 2014

Teaching Paralysis

So far this month I've attended two math conferences, plus I've been part of a lesson study that involved collaboration with teachers from other schools in my district. Much of the discussion has involved what are (to me) radical shifts in pedagogy. Randomized groups. Unsupervised learning. Moving from abstract to concrete. Vertical surfaces. Experimentation.

There is a scene from the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Ethics" that often plays in my mind. (It's actually a pretty mediocre episode in my opinion, save for this debate.) I've found a copy of the scene online... Picard and Crusher discussing whether to allow Worf to undergo an experimental treatment.


Here's the two lines that I'm going to pick apart:

Picard: He can't make the journey you're asking of him. You want him to go from contemplating suicide to accepting his condition and living with a disability, but it's too far! And the road between covers a lifetime of values... beliefs... he can't do it. But perhaps he can come part of the way.

Crusher: The first tenant of good medicine is never make the patient any worse. Right now, Worf is alive and functioning. If he goes into that operation, he could come out a corpse.

Here's the thing. Part of the way no longer feels sufficient. So if I can't make a full conversion, maybe I end up leaving the teaching profession. I've seen the research, I know where we're headed, and I know the benefits of applied math and group work, but right now it's still too far from the core of who I am. And the road between... you know the rest.

Some teachers are able to pivot and try new things right out of the gate. Others feel energized by the learning that occurs in an unstructured environment. There are also those who are very good at coming up with tasks that involve "real world" mathematics. I am working at all of this, but it feels harder with every passing day. I used to be alive and functioning. Now, going though this shift, I feel like I'm going to come out a corpse... or at the very least, as only a ghost of my former self.


Part of the problem is that I am very much all-or-nothing. But the all (at once) is too much, while the nothing is unfathomable, which leaves me spinning like a top, trying to implement pieces of the whole. I get all the exhaustion of the change, but with none of the exhilaration. I am constantly reinventing, while knowing that it's insufficient. The worst cut is how I see my practical traits, and my meticulous and detail oriented nature becoming a hinderance rather than something of any use. But I can't shake off that part of me... nor do I even want to.

It's all internal, of course. No one else is (directly) telling me that I don't measure up. I am my own judge, jury, and if necessary, executioner. The jury is still out. A couple remarks from Mawi Asgedom (who spoke at OAME 2014) ring true at this point. The first is with respect to pushing beyond your circle of mastery (can do) into your circle of growth (can't do). Even if you don't make it all the way, as long as you are pushing the boundaries, you are succeeding. I passed that message on to my classes.

I now ask: Is succeeding enough? More troubling, do I like what I'm growing into?

His other remark, which I tweeted, was "You can never forget the larger story [of why you became an educator] or you've lost a lot of your power." I've previously blogged about "Yi Teach", effectively boiling it down to "to be able to push others forwards, to places beyond my reach". Also a reason why I write. I want to use what I know to spark something in other people.

But now the game has changed. What I know seems to be of limited use. I question whether I would be hired today.


Like politics, it's as if there's two extremes, and I'm somewhere in the middle. I'm not happy with either side, I'm not happy with where I am, I'm not happy with the route I'm taking, and I don't know how to make peace with myself on the journey. It's left me rather paralyzed.

If this really is a linear continuum, perhaps I should take a step off, moving into a third dimension. But I'm not sure where that would lead either, and (as I've said) I'm not a risk taker. So I'm simply going to toss two questions out into the internet:

1) Is it just me? I know I'm not the only one having difficulty with the shifts in education, but am I the only one feeling actual paralysis as I attempt to "better myself"?

2) How can I change what I do, in order to function in my profession, without sacrificing the quirks that make me who I am?


  1. I'm not clear on the context. You are saying you feel as if your style of teaching doesn't work?

    1. It's not that it doesn't work. It's that it feels inadequate. And that it will go on feeling inadequate because of who I am, and what the research is showing.

  2. First of all, I think that you are a living example of what can be accomplished by a teacher with a penchant for detail, a huge store of knowledge, a fascinating variety of interests, and a gorgeous, flourishing creative streak. (Hey, it's like looking in a mirror!) I know you're not happy about the lack of response to your serial, but it's brilliant nevertheless, and it's the kind of thing all that research is saying our kids should be doing. SO if anyone should be a teacher in this new age, it's you. That much I know in my bones.

    "if I can't make a full conversion, maybe I end up leaving the teaching profession" I bet there is NO ONE out there who can totally change how they do what they do. There is no such thing as a full conversion, unless you consider going from "I'm a master teacher oh yeah" to being in constant beta mode a full conversion. which is what happened to me. I was unsatisfied, tried one change, it didn't take, so I tried another, and another, and I'm still at it! But in this profession, and especially in Canada, we have the advantage that we can keep learning and improving for virtually our whole careers. My husband is an engineer, and believe me, there is no room for that kind of tinkering. Zero. Am I more satisfied since I started trying different things? Yes. Did they all work? Nope. Am I happy with my own performance? Never. But I'm happy to be a teacher, and I know I'll never be done.

    If you feel unsatisfied, that's good! That means change is already happening on some level. But instead of leaving, or trying to do too much too fast, I recommend small changes. "2) How can I change what I do, in order to function in my profession, without sacrificing the quirks that make me who I am?" I don't know what to suggest, because only you have an idea of where to start, but find something that's possible, and that's not too different from what you do at the moment. The 'adjacent possible" is how I've heard it referred to, somewhere out there. That's doable, and whether or not it works doesn't matter, because either way, it'll lead to another one.

    "1) Is it just me?" As you said, many are having difficulty, but paralysis is another thing. I don't feel that way in my teaching, but I do in other areas of my life. The only way around it is to spend time doing something relatively mindless, like get out in the garden, go for a walk, let my mind wander and sooner or later it settles on what I know I have to do. With teaching though, it's so easy to get discouraged, especially with twitter telling us constantly how wonderful this and that is, and how we're all doing it wrong. I get discouraged too, and also just plain tired sometimes.

    I keep going back to my aha moment as a new mom 21 years ago, when no two moms, no two nurses, and no two doctors were giving me the same advice: That at some point, we just have to listen to our own selves, because only we know what's best for us and the people we take care of, be it our babies or our students.

    That 2/3 deal sounds like a great idea too, and you're lucky you have that option. In the meantime, I hope writing it all down helps, and I hope long-winded comments do too.

    Your friend,

    1. Let me say thanks for taking the time to write all of that. You make a good point about the 'full conversion' thing, and I know that the end goal should never be for us all to teach the same way... but at the same time, of late I've been seeing how much BETTER things could be for students if, well, I had a different sort of personality.

      I'm tired of being unsatisfied. But at the same time, I'm not sure how to satisfy myself, which is probably leading to the paralysis. I AM making some little adjacent changes. They just seem to lead me to more work, more falling behind, more discontent. I probably need to dwell more on the positive moments that come out of it, but I've never been good at that. Or on emotions generally.

      Oh well. I'll see what I can do about being mindless, and trusting myself, but yeah, it's hard. (Isn't there someone who said we're our own worst critics?) I suppose other areas of my life have been taking a hit too, which probably isn't helping. You mention my serial, but that's a whole other kettle of fish with a post I cued up 3 weeks ago that's going out tomorrow.

      Writing might have helped. External views do as well. Thanks again. Appreciate it.

  3. Gregory,

    I certainly did not intend for you to feel bad as a result of my tweet. I'm really sorry that it snowballed into this... You need to know that not everything is sunshine and roses for any of us. I happen to have fantastic classes this semester so I have a lot of good things to share. But that's the thing - people tend to share the good stuff, their successes, what they would do again. You hear less of the "meh" lessons (of which I have many) or of the "that-really-sucked-and-now-I-feel-like-a-failure" lessons (of which I have also had many).

    I firmly believe that there is no one right way to teach. We are all different people so we cannot all teach the same way. We will never please everyone but if all our students are learning, that's a good thing. Alex and I may be teaching mostly the same things in the same way, but I guarantee that our classes are very different because we have different teaching styles. I adapt what he does to suit me, to make me comfortable enough that I can be successful. I need more structure and I think that's okay. I also find my own activities which he doesn't need to do. That's okay too. I think that being connected to the MTBoS exposes a lot of cool activities that teachers are using and makes it seem like everyone is teaching without "direct instruction", etc. I know that is not the case. I think it's important for us all to keep growing as teachers but we have to do it at our own pace. Small, manageable changes are more likely to stick than overhauling everything and feeling like nothing is successful. I still teach my calculus & vectors classes in a "traditional" way. I think that works for that course. I also know that I couldn't make major changes as I have in 2P in more than one course at a time. Focus on what you want to improve on, and that becomes your goal. Regardless of what anyone else is doing. It's not an all or nothing. I added lots of activities to 2P last year so making the shift to spiraling with activities was not so daunting. Choose activities that you have worked through and like.

    I think you have a lot to offer and your dedication is clear. So many teachers do not even question whether they are doing what is best for the kids. You are clearly looking out for them, but need to find a balance that keeps you sane too. If you would like to chat more, let me know...


    1. Oops. I didn't intend for you to think your tweet was the cause. It was more a catalyst. These things that have been in my head most of this month. It all spilled out then because I wanted input from people who seemed to "get it" more than I did. Which really wasn't fair. Sorry.

      I am aware of the whole sharing paradox out there, but it probably does bear repeating, so thanks. I am just SO not an "activities" sort of person. The 'group' activity run in my class yesterday was, I believe, the first time I've done something in groups all semester. So am I really doing what's best? ... okay, I guess I am in my own way, but I don't know how useful that is. I'm never sure how my own sanity mixes in either.

      It probably just comes down to time. I never seem to have enough, be it at school or at home. I'm just bouncing from one crisis to the next. Thanks for your thoughts, I appreciate the offer. I guess I'll see how the rest of the weekend plays out and take it from there.

    2. The time issue may be the stumbling block. It's not that you're not capable of managing what you need to adapt to, it's that you just don't have the time to adjust to new research, new approaches, and see how they meld with your style. Just like no two students learn the same way, no two teachers teach the same way.

      You mentioned on this blog some time back the idea of multiple teachers teaching a class. Maybe that's what is needed, allowing teachers to do what they are best at while letting someone else handle the weaker areas.

      I might be the only non-teacher here, so I won't have the full knowledge of what's changing and what isn't working for you. But, if you can figure out what isn't working for you and find the time to think about why it doesn't, you might be able to manage. It's that time element that's causing problems, and there's no real solutions besides a sabbatical, which loses your students a caring teacher.

    3. The multiple teachers one class angle still feels like something that would work (and create jobs!) if implemented right. Because yeah, like the Borg, I don't have enough time to adapt before the frequencies have changed. That's probably a bad analogy. Point being, it feels like it's all happening so fast. Though if it feels that way for me, I suppose it's even worse for others. Need to keep perspective.

      Time away is probably necessary in order to recharge; caring or not, we're verging on me of being little use to anyone.

    4. The other issue, also related to time, is the sheer amount of change happening in education. Anywhere else, when new processes, new procedures, new hardware, new software, new anything comes in, the people at the front lines are given training and time to adjust and adapt. I'm not seeing anything like that for teachers. New software, you get time to poke around with it before having to use it live. New approach in in education? "Toss the teachers to the lions, er, students! They'll pick it up in no time!" Except, no, that doesn't happen.

      Burn out isn't good. Time away, time to recharge, time to figure out which way is up helps, but it needs to be long enough that you can get your head straightened. Long hours with deadlines that whoosh by or, worse, roar as you approach them just adds stress, and stress is a killer. You don't want the side effects of stress; they're not good.

  4. There's also the issue that you are an introvert and teaching requires a lot of interaction with people and as such, it's a lot more draining for you. What is that expression about judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree?

    I teach but I'm not an 'official' teacher, and as such, I can design classes and a schedule that suits me... which is part of the reason why I'm teaching online. I enjoy teaching (though I'm fairly new to it) but one of the reasons I never pursued becoming a school teacher is that the environment is one that I would not thrive in.

    Still, I understand the sense of feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration because one's strengths are a hinderance in the working environment. I was good at programming, but not at being a programmer. I was good at marketing, but not at working in a marketing department. I was good at corporate writing, but not at working in a corporation. Nor even working with corporate clients when I freelanced. Doing so was hard because I had to keep forcing myself into doing things that I don't do well and working against my strengths, and overall, it was exhausting and I felt useless and like I never had time and that I constantly failing.

    What is that expression about judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree?

    The big difference is that I am a risk-taker. I don't know the answer to your dilemma, Greg, because my solution in most things like this is to run for the hills, but frankly, writing corporate boilerplate copy about software for insurance companies is distinctly less personally meaningful teaching young people.

    I do know, however, that one of the most emotionally exhausting things a person can do is not be who they are. And related to that is being too hard on yourself. (It cost me a marriage and $7,000 dollars worth of therapy, among other things, to learn this.)

    You are probably going to have to make some compromises here. What they look like, I don't know... maybe it's an adjustment in thinking and maybe it something a lot bigger. But I don't think sacrificing the quirks that make you who you are, is likely to make you happy.

    1. Interesting. I hadn't considered how my personality enters into things. Perhaps even my small forays into the new style (in terms of increased interaction) are more mentally draining to me than I think? I also have this annoying tendency to want to meddle and help, I should probably step back more often than I do.

      I'm not sure about the fish analogy -- you wouldn't hire a fish in the first place if that's the end goal, and yet I'm in this job. I do think you've hit on something with the idea of feeling like I'm "constantly failing" because of working against my strengths. Which is why I'm trying to figure out how to change. Which is probably the wrong tactic to use. But at the same time, being "who you are" is something that CAN change over time, with life experiences, et cetera... so maybe I can gain new strengths? Which may also not be the right tactic. Hm.

      I'll have to keep thinking about things; I should really do a more thorough analysis in July. Thanks very much for your comments and your perspective, I appreciate you taking the time.

    2. Sure you would hire a fish to climb a tree, especially if the fish came into the interview with its tree-climbing credentials and said it could climb, and you'd keep them in that job if you kept seeing them somewhere up in the tree. What is unrecognized is the effort that it took the fish to get there... it's working at lot harder at this than a monkey.

      I've been hired for work (and even approached for jobs) for things that I have all the skills to, and that I've even done competently in the past... but such work doesn't suit me. Doing it, I feel like I'm bouncing between failing and then making Herculean efforts to compensate for that failure. On the outside, evidently, it looks more competent than it feels on the inside.

      That's not to say that you couldn't or shouldn't do thing that don't play to your strengths if you want to, but you do need to recognize that it's going to be harder for you, and/or you have to figure out ways accomplish the same things differently.

      My life these days is a lot more suited to me than ever, but there are still many things that I must do to live this way, and they don't always suit me... for example, there are many aspects to running a business that I am utterly unsuited to doing, but I still find ways to do them, recognizing that it's just going to be harder for me, take up more time and energy, cost me more money, etc. But I still wouldn't give up self-employment, because ultimately it suits me far better.

      Figuring out what about yourself you can change is a tricky business. Roughly 10 years ago I went through some massive personal changes, and discovered it's far harder to change than most people realize, and it often affects at lot more of your life than you realize. There are also limits to change--some things about ourselves are characterlogic, others are more malleable. But in general, change is incredibly difficult.

    3. Okay, I suppose I can buy the fish analogy there - particularly when looking at it as the fish potentially lying to itself, or just being unaware of what "climbing a tree" really entails. (I mean, I suppose the fish could simply be unhappy with anything involving water, but it's kind of a necessity for it's survival.) I certainly see the point about different types working harder, and that "change is incredibly difficult". I also suspect there's things about any job that aren't suited to an individual, and that competence is hard to ascertain (few people go around saying "I screwed up!", unless it's in retrospect). Teaching may suit me more than I think. I'm starting to feel like the problem is the lack of time for expanding my writing.

      Scott has another good point about the lack of a chance to acclimate to (and analyze!) the latest changes, which could lead to being harder on myself than warranted. I vaguely feel like the teaching profession as a whole is getting slammed, but that could simply be the people I interact with. I'll keep thinking.