And All Of A Sudden, I’m So Good At Math

The school day before the math state exam, we went over any number of topics: linear relationships, scientific notation, the slope-intercept form of a linear equation. In each instance, I had a few sample problems carefully planned out for whole class review. [Yes, I had a lesson plan for the session this time.] Then, I prompted students to ask about “confusing” problems for us to review together. They picked one about frequency tables. I knew the answer. It was yelling at me right there on my paper. However, at the moment, I forgot how to articulate what needed explanation. I looked around the room and saw any number of students listless about the responses their tablemates were getting. I kept asking for them to come up with an argument that worked. They still couldn’t convince one another.

I almost blurted out the answer and literally cut myself off. I then pointed at the student who explained it better to me and let her rock. I then occupied her seat and watched the master at work. Some of the students kept arguing with one another until they saw the new teacher and, with some cough prompting, gave her a chance to explain her theory. The marker glided across that whiteboard while students asked the new teacher the question I couldn’t answer, then the new teacher passed the mic to another new teacher who had just asked the first teacher if she could teach the answer her way.

Um, sure, what do you need me for?

After the class came to some consensus on the problem and I caught a breath, I went back to the front of the class and said “Any other questions?” They seemed satisfied. Time and again, I have those handful of students willing to challenge and confront me on the math questions in front of them. I relish the opportunity to argue with them and parse out the ideas, whether it’s one-on-one or with the whole class. When it gets too tense, I might even laugh out loud to show my appreciation for them pushing back. “Winning” the argument in most of those instances isn’t as important as them having argued. (Yes, I know I’m supposed to win like 98% of the arguments, but that’s for another time.)

But this practice only happens if the teacher disorients themselves in their position of power. Most people I’ve spoken to look for the teacher to stand in front of the classroom, but this seems endemic of math teachers. We’re expected to do the rote, the mundane, the practical. Even as our personalities might vary, our content expectations need not deviate from direct instruction that worked so well for the adults who ostensibly succeeded in schooling. Math teachers express the values of math in their renditions of authority. The more sophisticated the math, the stronger the penchant for outright dismissal of “those who don’t get it.”

That’s a stereotype worth owning, deconstructing, then reconstructing something new.

What’s more, I’ve felt the spectrum of expertise as a student and as a teacher. I’ve known excellence in K-12 math student only to spend sleepless nights playing catch up in Calc 1, 2, and 3. I’ve spent hours in professional development sessions where the organizer or peers devalued my place in the math community as a Black teacher, and I’ve spent more hours traveling the country to discuss equity in math. I’ve spent hours in schools where some students lavished praise on their teachers who acknowledged them as human beings and math students and heard older students cry to me over the disinterest their teacher had in their mathematical success. I’ve become a case study on the deleterious ways that numbers get used against us as teachers, too. I can acknowledge that assessments matter and still disregard measures of student learning with sizable margins of error. I can be considered one of the most professional and decorated teachers in a building, a district, a city, a country, and still be rated the lowest on professionalism in my teacher rating sheet. I’ve earned payment for pieces I’ve written on math, and handed countless letters and memos for my file.

Despite testimony from any number of peers, colleagues, and naysayers, I’m so good at math.

That’s not enough. If the students in my classroom don’t see themselves in the math in front of them, they’ll always ask us about relevance. Rather than the teacher (me, you, whoever) insisting that students soak in a teacher’s one understanding of the material in front of them, it’s important that we model fault and self-correction through questions and argument. I found that, throughout the history of math, the real mathematicians both trusted each other’s expertise and had heated discussions about the content. Sure, there has to be time for teachers to clarify and expound on concepts that students haven’t seen as a matter of efficiency and processing, but without the time to reflect and practice on skills and concepts in tandem with peers and alone, it’s hard for them to see themselves as mathematicians.

That has to be modeled by us. It’s not teacher blaming. It’s a reorientation. Instead of getting corrected “by accident,” why not make it part of our regular practice as teachers of young people?