Monday, July 30, 2012

The Make-or-Break Teachers

I'm getting ready to start a new school year. As always, there's a thought that lingers over all my preparations.

I hope I don't screw up any of the kids too much.

To be fair, I'm pretty sure I haven't screwed up any kids yet. There have been a few I wish I could've done more for, but I think my track record's pretty solid. There's a little extra anxiety this year since I'm starting at a new school—or rather, my old school after several years away.

It's an interesting situation, because it's the school I went to as a teenager, along with being where I launched my teaching career. My family and I are rooted in this area, so a lot of the neighbors know I'm returning to teach there. Several of them are hoping to transfer their child into my class if at all possible.

No pressure, ha-ha.

Seriously, though, one thing I've heard from parents in the last several weeks (and indeed the past several years) is how important they feel it is that their child gets the right math teacher. A good math teacher can take a student from hating math to at least tolerating it, if not better. A bad math teacher can bring a skilled student's progress to a grinding halt. Often that damage is never recovered.

Is it the same in other disciplines? Probably, to a degree, anyway. But it seems like the near-irreparability is more severe in math. I had English classes that I hated, but they couldn't kill my love for reading and writing (obviously). Then again, if I'd been a struggling reader in elementary school, and a bad teacher only reinforced and exacerbated my struggles, that could've set me back for the rest of my life.

Once past the learning-to-read stage, moving on to reading-to-learn, it seems the make-or-break power of teachers lessens somewhat. (I hope so, considering teens I've known with English teachers of ... questionable quality.) Math works a little differently, always with a new skill, a new principle to learn.

That makes my job potentially dangerous.

Maybe a different approach is in order. Maybe if I keep the focus on helping kids develop their ability to think, to reason, to problem-solve—and I don't mean "A Train leaves Station A at 6:45 am" kind of problems, I mean real "Here's a situation and we need a solution" problems—maybe that means I won't have to worry so much about breaking anyone.

Because you know what? There's something else underlying this whole line of thought. To have the power to break, I have to keep a monopoly on the power to build.

The students need to be allowed to build themselves. Maybe they'll suffer minor breakages along the way, too, but maybe that's what I'm really there for ...

... to provide the super-glue when they need to mend their own breaks.

Have you had experiences with teachers (math or otherwise) who had that make-or-break position in your life? What made the good ones good, and the bad ones terrors?

1 comment:

Mike Lewis said...

Don't get me started. You know I've had my share of questionable math teachers throughout my years of education, even in college. But I had a lot of good ones too. Here's the breakdown:

Not So Good: 4th, 5th, and 6th grade. We had some of the local young men over to help lay sod last week. The topic of discussion turned to year-round school and how it works. I think I can blame the then-brand-new-year-round system at Orchard Elementary and its significant mid-year breaks as a hinderance to me understanding and properly learning long division. I never did grasp it until much later, when all the other kids already knew what they were doing. I remember in 4th grade, because of this system, I was put into a classroom of 6th graders for the math rotation with Mr. Paul-- a 6th grade teacher. He was pretty strict and very much a "no excuses" kind of guy. I hated him. I later heard that a lot of parents didn't like him either. Even after he left Orchard and went to Windsor Elementary, a lot of Windsor parents didn't like him either.

Good: Miss Dodge in 7th grade General Math. She kept class fun and made sure we understood the concepts.

Good: Mr. Matlock in 8th grade Pre-Algebra. Reasons described below.

Not so Good: Mr. Nielsen, 9th grade Algebra I, first semester. I know it was algebra, but I could not begin to tell you what it was he was teaching. I think he was the epitome of "old school" because I remember cousin Linda had him in high school... in the 1970s. On top of that, he was pretty strict too. Fortunately that only lasted one semester. Was that his last year or was he still around when you were in Jr. High?

Good: Mr. Matlock- again- 9th grade Algebra I, second semester. He fixed everything I was supposed to learn earlier that year and got me and a few others caught up. It was probably my all-time favorite math class because he left us to govern ourselves. 6 of us were smart and sat in a group right in front of his desk, and we listend to him, and took notes, and we all worked together when he wasn't lecturing... all while the other 24 kids goofed off the entire class. I bet you can guess which six kids consistently had the highest test scores throughout the semester.

Good: Mr. Harward for my Trig class my senior year. He did a good job to not let us get lost, we worked in groups a lot, and I was genuinely interested in this kind of math because I could directly apply it in computer science.

Not-so-Good: Ms. Ya Li in college. Really, I appreciate that America is the melting pot of culture and language, but this nice lady had a super thick Korean accent that made understanding her difficult. I don't think her English was as strong as it could have been either. If we asked her to repeat too often, we ran out of time in class, but were still expected to know the whole chapter for the test. That said, I bet she really was a great teacher if the language barrier was removed.