Did you ever get the feeling that a lesson was going to explode before you were able to teach it? Did some sense of existential edu-dread occur at the realization you may be over your head with a certain subject, and now as a result it’s bringing back a past traumatic experience from when you were a student in the classroom?
When I first started my teaching career, I used to feel this way about certain strands of the Math block. For the first 13 years of my school life, Math and I were like “peas and carrots”. I loved it and it loved me. We went well together. Maybe I should have quit while I was ahead because in my 14th year, my OAC year, a love of Math was ripped out of my life by a soul-sucking approach to pedagogy that did not serve a single student. Sound familiar? From what I hear, I am not alone when it comes to Math and its complexity layers between love and loathe in educators.
It is odd to think how 13 of 14 years of Math learning went so well in elementary and secondary, only to have things fall to pieces at the end. Statistically that’s nearly a 93% success rate. However, much like poison, it only takes a few drops to alter someone’s life force. I wonder how many educators who, like me, were impacted through a negative experience or multiple negative experiences.
Of all the subjects in the curriculum that cause concern, Math seems to be at the top of the pile when it comes to traumatizing educators and students equally. I never paid attention to Math for most of my schooling because everything about it came easy for me. That was not a humble brag, but moreover an admission that I may have unwittingly contributed to my own struggle by not applying myself appropriately because the Math concepts, up until that final year, required little bandwidth to understand or apply.
Looking back, I wish there would have been more instruction dedicated to productive struggle, growth mindset thinking, and fearless failing forward with what was being taught. On the sunny side of this memory, it is good to accept that if everything in the sentence above happened, then I might not be here writing about it in the hopes of helping others. After grade 13, I vowed never to take Math again, choosing to pursue a degree in French Studies instead while shoving the whole experience to the back of my memory bank to fade away forever.
Or so I thought
The human brain has an uncanny sense of irony. At the flash of synapse what was once a firmly repressed memory can appear again even after 25+ years. This mind jolted back into my thoughts when I was in teacher’s college. Here’s the set-up, the prof(an incredibly passionate mathematician) was known for the habit of calling on under-prepared colleagues asking them to share their thoughts. In those moments, I could almost hear their hearts breaking along with silent cries of, “Why me? I didn’t even raise my hand?”. Each time this happened the room seemed to get progressively uncomfortable. There was a lesson to be had here in what not to do when we were the ones leading the classroom. Perhaps this was the trigger for me?
Here we were, teacher candidates, high achievers*, hard workers, and deserving of the opportunity to shape minds for decades to comes. Yet, at that place in time, we witnessed why Math can be triggering to educators as much as it can be for learners, again. It became very clear that there was a cycle to break here.
For many of the elementary teachers with whom I have discussed this, Math seems to consistently be at the top of subjects causing them to be uncomfortable while teaching. With a new curriculum to deliver and a realization that the textbooks that used to weight the desks down in many classrooms have lost much of their relevance. Sprinkle in a large amount of students who have come out of 3 years of disjointed and disrupted learning it is easy to understand that it might be a recipe for troubles. What couldn’t happen though was a reversion to my own negative past experiences that left me with doubt and anxiety about Math.
Time to create a new cycle
So there I was in front of the class talking about fractions. Cue the groans and self-destruct sequences being activated. How can something trigger such a visceral reaction in such young learners? It was like students had been experienced these feelings before and they had all come flooding back at the mere mention of fractions.
Fractions, the steps to big understandings of division, decimals, percents, and ratios. Fractions, the gateway to abstract concepts of Algebra. Fractions, one of the most important concepts in Math, when taught out of isolation. Fractions, the trigger of elementary nightmares. Those fractions.
It was time to step towards the future without teaching from the past. So I spend a quarter of our time recalling previously taught concepts and another third on using manipulatives all in the hopes that we can all get better by a hundredth every day. The rest of the time was spent connecting between the important relationships and patterns of number facts rather than handcuffing students to an antiquated and antithetical approach to teaching about fractions.
What I made sure to do through all of this was to emphasize the value of their hard work and persistence even when they struggled with through learning about fractions. We had mini-lessons, we extended the concept into other aspects of the world around us, we practised, and then went on a quest of what was learned. I am happy to say that what used to be a series of lessons evoking fear and trepidation for both teacher and student yielded very strong outcomes that can be built upon much more in the future. We are by no means done with this, but I am confident because of they are confident.
Finally, it felt good to let go of what hurt from all those years ago. I realized that the problem did not fall solely on my shoulders and that a more consistent, caring, and positive approach would have been a far more effective choice when it came to that final year of high school. Having seen the product of negative instruction and how it has harmed generations of students, makes me even more determined to finish what was started. I am half way there.
* Not me. I’m nervous of heights.
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