Thursday, May 23, 2013

Reflections from my first year as a HS Teacher

This was my first year teaching high school.  Before this year, I taught at the college level for three years.  [I talked about my decision to switch here.]

I came into this job knowing it would be different, but, in general, I felt pretty prepared for the job.


I cried more the first two days on the job than I had the previous two years combined.  I felt totally out of my element.  I felt out of control.  I didn’t know what in the world I had just gotten myself into.

I had left my college teaching job for…this?  For kids who hated math?  For kids who were glued to their cell phones?  For kids who had full conversations with each other while I was trying to teach?

What. Had. I. Done?

And then I remembered why I took the job in the first place.  I remembered what one of my dear professors and mentors had asked me, “Rebecka, where will you make the biggest difference?”  

So, I (eventually) decided to leave my pity party and start focusing on why I had taken the job in the first place—the kids.  The loud, boisterous, glued-to-their-phones, disillusioned-with-math kids.

Slowly, but very surely, I started falling in love with these crazy kids.  I think it was the little, daily decisions, like these.  I think was it choosing to be thankful for my job and for the opportunity to love on kids who might not get that love elsewhere.  I think it was making small, conscious choices like speaking quietly and respectfully even when a kid lost his temper at me; like stroking a little girl’s hair whether she was doing what I wanted her to be doing or not; like keeping granola bars in my desk for kids who got hungry.  I don’t know if those little things changed my kids’ opinions of me.  But, I do know this:  it changed the way I viewed them.  Those little things weren’t for the students (even though at first I thought they were)—they were for me.  When I started serving my kids, I changed.  When I started being grateful for them, I transformed.

And now?

I love my job.

I can’t imagine going back to college teaching any time soon.  I love my kids.  I love that I get the opportunity to be around some of the coolest teenagers in the nation every single day.  I love that I have the chance to change their minds about mathematics.  I love that I work at a place that encourages academic research and collaboration in order to benefit the children of our community.  I love belonging to a district that just about everyone is proud to be a part of.  I love that I get to belong and make others feel belonged.

Was every day easy?

Hell no.

Was ANY day easy?


Were there days I did NOT want to go back into my classroom?

You bet.

Were there times I messed up like crazy with the kids?  Times I missed opportunities to love on them?  Times I lost my temper?  Times I wanted them to leave, just please leave?  Times I felt like a failure?

More than I can count.  Much more.

But, in the end, I feel the good outweighed the bad by a long shot.  Because, I’m a better person now than I was in August.  And I have my job to thank for that.

There’s a lot I want to work on.  If there’s one thing I learned this year it’s this:  you have to capture a kid’s heart before you can capture her mind.  I know I captured some hearts this year; but there are also hearts I’m pretty sure I didn’t capture.

I wrote letters to all my (140) students this week.  And I was disappointed by how many of them I really didn’t know all that well.  I wanted to write kind, personal notes.  And while I know my students’ personalities and their tendencies, I don’t necessarily know all my kids.  I know some of them.  But not all.  Yeah, 140 kids is a lot, but after a whole year with them, I should know more about them. 

So, that’s what I’ll be focusing more on next year.  What do my kids do at home?  Who are their friends outside my classroom?  Where do they want to travel and what do they want to see?  What are their dreams and aspirations?

If you have any bright ideas as to how you facilitate these conversations, I’m all ears.

This is long.  If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a medal.  But, this was a pretty life-changing year for me, and I wanted to reflect and document.  I never thought I’d be teaching at a public high school, let alone one with 3200 kids in grades 10-12.  I, myself, was homeschooled and specifically pursued a Master’s so I could go teach at the college level and skip the whole high school crowd.

Funny, right?

But this is where I belong.  A friend of mine recently had a baby girl.  As I watched her hold her daughter, I said, “Man, you are such a natural.  It’s like you’ve had her your whole life.”  She responded, “This is what I was made to do.  I’ve always wanted to be a mamma.”  In that moment, I knew exactly what she meant.  Because that’s how I feel about teaching.  I just never thought my teaching career would take me here.

I’m so glad it did.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Mistakes mean we're getting better, right?

We tried a modified version of Bowman’s Mistake Game in PreCalc this week to review for an upcoming game.  I split the class into six groups and gave each group a problem to work.  Then I gave them these:


·As a group, work your given problem correctly.  Then, have me check your answer.
·Once you have a correct answer, work the problem incorrectly, hiding your mistake as cleverly as possible.  Your "mistake" must be a true pitfall of the given problem (i.e., what kinds of conceptual errors would students likely make?).  Your error cannot be a simple arithmetic or algebraic mistake.
·When you're happy with your lie, put it on a whiteboard (no need to write out the original question).
·When every group is done, you will find the errors on the other whiteboards and vote on the group with the sneakiest mistake.  Winners get candy. :)

After everyone had looked through and analyzed each group's whiteboard, I brought the boards to the front and had a student from each group summarize the mistake one more time.  

They taped the original question face-up and the mistake face-down

Then, students voted on the best error.  We had previously discussed that the errors needed to be conceptual, big-picture mistakes.  Something that would tell me, “Uh, this kid doesn’t really know what’s going on here…”  Not something like forgetting to distribute a negative or simplifying incorrectly. 

Before the kids left, I had them give me one mistake they promised not to make, write it on a post-it note, and stick it to my door on their way out.

I plan on leaving these up as they enter the door tomorrow so they can be reminded of those promises right before they start the test.


Aside, and probably more important...
As usual, my first run at this activity wasn't perfect.  There's a lot that needs to be changed.  It's easy for me to get discouraged when an activity doesn't go exactly as I had planned.  But I've been thinking lately (dangerous, I know):  

(1) My class activities have to start somewhere; they can't just magically be perfect...isn't that what we tell our kids:  you have to practice and have patience if you want to become really good at something?  I guess the same goes with becoming good at making the students do the work.  Learning how to scaffold; learning how to ask engaging questions; learning when to step in and when to stay out.  This takes a lot of practice.  No matter how much preparation I put into a lesson or activity, I have to practice delivering it, too...and that can't be done without kids in the room.

(2)  My students have to be taught how to talk about math.  It's a language.  Providing places for them to talk about what they're learning is great...but I can't expect that the conversations will just magically happen.  If the conversations aren't flowing quite as well as I'd like, it's a-ok.  It probably means we're doing good stuff here, actually.  Because we're practicing something they're not particularly good at...yet.