Friday, 8 May 2015

You're a Good Teacher

There’s nothing quite so simultaneously invigorating and demoralizing as going to a math conference like OAME. Or for that matter, going on Twitter, where the MTBoS (Math Twitter Blog o’ Sphere) is like a constant math conference.

Interesting viewpoint...

I say invigorating because you get to see what other teachers are doing, and learn about new technologies and innovative teaching techniques. I say demoralizing because those other teachers can seem so much better at this job, and so much more connected, able to do things that feel beyond your capabilities. I say invigorating because you gain a greater sense of community, and the knowledge that everyone is trying to figure this out together. I say demoralizing because you may now feel like one tiny voice among the masses, easily missed or drowned out by popular opinion.

Of course, of late I’ve been having issues with depression, self-worth and sleep deprivation. So the demoralizing parts of that paragraph could be only me.

But maybe it’s not. After all, last summer I posted about not needing to be ‘validated’ by other educators. A little further down the slope, we get to ‘I’m not a great teacher like that. I’m not even a good teacher. Why am I even still doing this?’ In which case, I want to reassure you that you ARE a good teacher, along with offering three tips:

1) Try not to take things personally.

That’s devilishly hard, since teachers are really good at making things personal. As a ‘for instance’: In a Marian Small presentation, she showed some (anonymous) tweets, like “All ideas are valued”... only to immediately challenge whether that SHOULD be the case. If you initially agreed with (or made!) the initial tweet, you go on the defensive. Or in the midst of a Dan Meyer presentation, he tosses in a pithy song about vocabulary, using it as a lead in to doing things in a better way. But you use songs in your instruction, thus might interpret this as casual dismissal of your seemingly good idea.

Yes, I’m attacking the keynote speakers of OAME 2015. Bear with me.

"You like cats? What's wrong with bunnies??"
First, notice that this is grafting personal experiences onto a presentation with a much broader context. The speakers are not actually attacking you, they’re attacking an idea. And they’re not even attacking it - they’re presenting an alternative viewpoint. One of Marian’s key points was that she doesn’t have the right to tell you what you think about being a teacher. And Dan pointed out that there are many things we don’t yet know about student engagement. Those are better, broader points to focus on.

I picked the keynotes because it’s more likely that you’ve seen or heard of them. Also because they have experience at painting those broader strokes, whereas sometimes others (including me) can accidentally make things personal. But whether it’s a presenter at a math conference or a colleague in your school, we’re all human, and we’re all prone to making mistakes - or misinterpreting.

An attack on an idea can feel like a personal attack, but try to take a mental step back. Is that how it was intended? Again, this is hard to do, but it’s probably in your best interests.

2) Give yourself more credit.

You are already at a math conference! Or on Twitter! (Though if you’re not, don’t take that personally.) My point is, you are making steps to better yourself. I know this because before you can even take action, you need AWARENESS. (Which you likely have if you're reading this post.) And once you have that, change doesn’t happen overnight. You need a boatload of other things too: Vision, Skills, Incentive, Resources, and a Plan.

Source Site Here

All of which might not be in the cards right now. Some of those things aren’t even under your own personal control! Maybe this is a long term thing. Maybe it’s a collaborative thing. Maybe it’s a long term collaborative thing. Ultimately, maybe it’s not even a YOU thing.

What works for one person may not work for someone else, and it’s important to know your limitations. In part so that you can push against them, but at the same time, if a push would cause you to explode and burn out - DON’T do that. Remember, you are a good teacher. We don’t want to lose you.

Besides, even if it’s not in the cards for you right now, perhaps you can turn your efforts towards helping someone else out instead. This may feel like a personal failing, like you’re not good enough, but there’s no shame in being a booster. Quite the opposite: If you’re using your awareness to help someone else move beyond you, that’s kind of the definition of teaching. Maybe some day they’ll even be able to return the favour.

Related to giving yourself credit, it’s somehow easier to see the things you’re NOT YET doing, as compared to what steps you’ve already taken. I’m not doing rich activities. I’m not creating constructive controversy. I’m lecturing/talking too much. I suck. Hold on - I am doing groupings, which three years ago would have been a virtual impossibility. I am marking on levels, possibly getting better at it. I am a good teacher. Maybe not great, but by no means bad.

Perhaps you can even harness what you’re not doing and use it as a motivator. I am not doing games in class - I’ve never liked them, I always feel like they’re a lose-lose prospect, I even avoided them at the OAMEMathsJam. Games would break me. Okay, so maybe a 3-act problem doesn’t seem so bad by comparison any more.

3) Context is key

Finally, remember this: They’re not being brilliant all the time. You’re not being terrible all the time. Social media is a wonderful lens for magnifying extremes, but there’s a lot of middle ground in there too. Math conferences may be even worse than social media, because you’re rarely seeing the bad extremes, only the good ones. (Depends a bit on what you talk about outside of sessions.)

Being good with paperwork is also handy...
There’s also more to being a teacher than teaching. What are you doing outside the class? Helping with sports, or arts, or offering extra help at lunch? That’s important! Don’t dismiss it simply because the teaching itself feels more ‘old school’ than you want it to be. (Notice I’m not saying it IS ‘old school’, merely that you perceive that it is.) In particular, when I forced myself to list “10 Good Things” back in January the majority of them were NOT things I did in my instruction!

Remember: We all have certain things that brought us to the teaching profession. We all have certain areas of strength, and weakness. We all have bad days, and good ones. We all have different classroom compositions, and things outside of our control. Try not to overanalyze what others are able to accomplish. Do the best with what you have.

Above all, remember to tell yourself that you are a good teacher. I’m not merely saying that because it’s teacher appreciation week. I’m saying that because it’s a message that is often difficult to acknowledge, even after hearing it from someone else.


  1. Thanks for this.

    Unfortunately, now I seem to have You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown running through my head.....

    1. You're welcome! Glad something resonated. As hey, just long as it's not the 'wah wah' teacher voice from Peanuts.