Where We Belong

When I first attended the annual National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference, it took place in Salt Lake City, Utah. I’d never been to SLC, but the burgers were good, the company was cool, and Malcolm Gladwell was the opening keynote speaker. I was only a few years into teaching, but the carnival of math education aficionados drew me in. The names that influenced so many of our professional development sessions and textbooks came to life in their workshops and presentations.

I also knew it was a space to attend because one of these presentations showed the value of dividing fractions directly instead of using the reciprocal, a concept I use to this day.

Fast-forward to 2019, and I’ve been asked to speak as the first ever current classroom teacher to keynote in this space. I took this responsibility very seriously, so much so that I had a hard time telling anyone until the announcements came in their mailboxes. Even then, I didn’t know exactly what I’d say until a few minutes before I got on stage. I needed to use my platform, once again, to both elevate our profession and challenge us to dream for better. I understood that I have been in a unique position for a good while now. I had already been the first current classroom teacher to be a featured speaker at any number of prestigious conferences and universities. I did my best to embody how we allow educators to move the profession forward in ways that hadn’t been done before. I assured anyone who would listen that shortly after I spoke, I’d be grading papers and preparing for lessons only a few hours later, too.

But even with my resume, it felt pertinent to use the self as a conduit. This educator might be the first current classroom teacher to keynote, but I would certainly not be the only. What does it feel like to belong?

So many of our spaces we designate for math feel exclusive. What feels like a math community to some has been more of a math clubhouse to others. Whereas a community has a set of well-defined, open, and transparent set of guidelines, a clubhouse has trees, ladders, and secret codes that bar and deter outsiders from entering. What’s more, a community feels like a space where we don’t have to explain ourselves too much in the space where a clubhouse constantly creates airs and arbitrary rules in the service of rectitude. The latter confuses itself for the former because both consist of people, many of whom mean well.

But the latter keeps punching down because this protects the clubhouse. Professors and academics have dictated to standards creators that students have not been adequately prepared for the rigors of college-level math, so it must be the high school teachers’ fault. High school teachers, in turn, say that their schools implicitly filter students who don’t have the adequate work ethic and / or intellect for their higher-level courses, but it’s the middle school teachers’ fault for students not preparing students with algebra and pre-algebra content. In working with higher-level standards, middle school teachers look at elementary school teachers, the grand generalists of the profession, and determine without much inquiry that it’s their fault that students don’t know their basic operations. Elementary school teachers then turn to parents and society. Who gets to be mathy matters as much as the math itself.

All of this is troubling because our children start looking like blazing potatoes thrown in a spiral at the next grade with astonishing inaccuracy.

As I got deeper into the work, I encountered math-affinity spaces that did not tend to the stories that got the mathematicians and math educators there. Math was neutral, or so they’d say. Everyone had their places. People who gave professional development couldn’t also be a current classroom teacher, especially not one that works in environments like mine. People who attended math conferences regularly as featured speakers and panelists could not possibly speak to great effects about systems of inequity and our complicity and still teach. At some point, our education zeitgeist had made it so the people most affected by any number of reforms, policies, and practices could not themselves have voice over their own work.

And students don’t really get to talk about why they’re learning what they’re learning. We should be sick of it.

This gets even worse across race, class, gender, and other identity lines where assumptions about our math attitudes and aptitudes precede us. Clubhouses get created on a regular basis, whether they be the people who have the privilege of working on curriculum guides in their math departments or people who get to attend the large and small conferences to turnkey it to their staff or even the people whose proposals get accepted and on what grounds. Even now, when equity feels like it’s moving into a more central tenet of organizational work, people would much rather not hear the word “equity” uttered from the people most affected by inequitable practices.

Because, if people of color, especially black people, bring up equity, it becomes a gateway drug to truth, reconciliation, and reparations for the harm caused by communities that ostracized so many of us.

Which brings me back to NCTM. What would it mean to imagine a space where we all belonged? Who’s going to create the space where we don’t just want the phenotypes to change, but we also appreciate the agency and energies of the participants involved? Instead of waiting for us to understand the codes, when do we rewrite the rules so we give ample opportunity to create a community of mutual cares?

So, after several rewrites, I used my platform to discuss belonging, to say definitively that NCTM is a place where educators like me belonged. NCTM may not have felt like a space where we belonged, but I will work to make NCTM a space to love and make sure it loves us back. May our stories be inextricable from the histories taught in our classrooms and may we always see ourselves reflected in community.

photo c/o