Sunday, December 1, 2013

Weekend Thought: A Balance

Author's Note: The following post is lengthy and may depress/disillusion those of who think I'm better than awful.  Feel free to skip to the bottom for a summary of the post and a cry for help.

I am not a man of moderation.  When I do something, I jump in with both feet, regardless of how insane it may be.  At the same time, it may take me a while to decide to jump in at all.  This seems to be true in almost all aspects of my life.

"I want some wings."  **eats 40**
"I want to start running."  **signs up for half-marathon**
"I want to watch TV."  **binge watches 6 seasons of Parks and Rec**
"I should do some crunches."  **does 15,000 in a month**
"I could go for a pizza." **eats a pizza**

You get the idea.

Those of you who read my blog know that I have a tendency to do this in my teaching as well.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails horribly.  A prime example of this was two weeks ago when I decided to turn my class into Genius Hour.  I stepped away from the typical classroom style, gave the kids iPads and said "learn what you want to learn."

Another example is how I have jumped into the #MTBoS with both feet, preaching the gospel of being a connected educator with everyone I meet.

This life of extremes has led to two VERY different styles and mentalities over the years and I want this post to serve as a cry for help.  Allow me to set the scene of my teaching mentality for the 3 of the past 4 years.  It may shock those of you who only know me through twitter or this blog, but I assure you (and my family and coworkers will agree) that it is true.

I should also state that what I'm about to write is based entirely on my perceptions and is probably inaccurate and tainted with bitterness and frustration.

I used to dread going to work.  I began in my current district by teaching in our alternate education program. It ran from 2:30 (when the rest of the school cleared out) until 7.  It was designed for students whose behavior made them unable to be a part of the general school population.  Before these students showed up, I was in several different rooms, teaching from my backpack.  I didn't use a cart because my classes were both upstairs and downstairs.  It felt to me as though I was assigned the leftover classes, filled with leftover students.

In hindsight, this was not even remotely a fair assessment of the situation, but it is what I thought.  I constantly complained to my wife about how lazy my students were and how they wouldn't do any work.  I had some pretty great students, but I never thought about them. I only ever thought about the ones who didn't do what I wanted all the time.

I was miserable and I was making everyone else miserable too.  I was constantly applying for new jobs, thinking that if I could get into a "better district" that all of my problems would be solved.  Every interview filled me with hope and every rejection sent me further and further into despair.  I began to feel trapped and, unfairly, began to resent my students and coworkers for it.

Every lesson that failed was because the students were unprepared, or didn't know the basics, or wouldn't put in the effort, or...or...or...

But it was NEVER my fault.  I was doing my job! I was showing up every day and covering the content that I was supposed to cover with creativity and brilliance and passion and I held my student accountable for their learning.  I was strict, but fair and I didn't coddle them the way the other teachers did.  I wasn't going to let them pass my class if they didn't have the knowledge to do so.

After three years of this, I could feel myself burning out.  Last year, I tried a new tactic.  Indifference.

"I'm going to go in every day, do what I can do and not get upset when they kids don't do what they are supposed to do!"  Furthermore, I planned to have this year, my 5th year in the district, be the year when I kicked my feet up on the desk, gave kids worksheets, rode out the year, collected my student loan forgiveness and left teaching forever.

I knew that I wasn't doing much good for the kids and I certainly wasn't happy so, there was no reason for me to stay.

Then I attended Twitter Math Camp.  My mentality on teaching in general and my role specifically changed almost overnight.  It might be called a religious experience.

This year, I have changed almost every aspect of my teaching.  I am warmer, kinder, more understanding with my students.  I give them freedom to express themselves and I ask their opinions on how the class is going, what they would like to see.  I give them ownership of their education while still realizing that they are children who need to be guided.

When I encounter a student who doesn't know how to add, I don't blame the student for being lazy.  I don't blame the elementary school for passing on a student who clearly had not mastered material.  I do my best to help that student.  I make up alternate assignments or work with them to get up to speed.  I have them work on simple problems to boost their confidence and give them a feeling of success.

This may sound all well and good, but I know I take it too far.  I gave a project that was supposed to take a week.  When less than 5% of my students turned in the finished product, I started out angry.  Then I quickly shifted the blame to myself and began thinking about what I could have done differently to encourage students to complete the task on time and with higher proficiency.  Several suggestions came to mind, including making all of the work in class, setting daily deadlines and goals and talking about the project much more.

I'm now experiencing the opposite of what I was for the past several years.  Now, people are telling me that the kids have to be held responsible for SOME of their learning.  THEY have to make the decision to do or not do the assignments.  No matter how interesting I make a lesson, some kids will simply refuse to do it because they won't ever find it more interesting than playing Call of Duty.

A few weeks ago, someone posted on Twitter (I can't remember who) that striving to make your lessons engaging implies that math is not engaging already.  It implies that we should be catering to their desires and interests all of the time instead of saying "sometimes you will enjoy this, sometimes you won't.  That's life and it has to be done."  I completely understand the logic behind this.  We don't want to train our students to be assembly line workers.  We want to train them to be Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc, but the reality is that the vast majority of them won't.  They still need the skills required of them in case they DO become assembly line workers.

I can almost feel the pendulum starting to swing back and I don't want it to! At the same time, I don't think it's good where it is.  I need it to stop in the middle. (Well, maybe a bit this side of middle)

So now I get to the point of this post.  I have NO idea where to draw the line.  I have come to the realization that I don't know how to distinguish between things that they should be held accountable for and the things that I should be.

Not being a man of moderation, I don't know where the middle ground is, or even how to find it..

If you got bored and skipped to the bottom, I don't blame you.  Here's a summary of the novella leading up to this point:

I used to only blame the students for their failures.  Now, I only blame myself.  I need to find a medium.  I don't have any idea where the line is between my responsibility for teaching and their responsibility for learning.  I know that it's a fluid line and changes with every child in every grade, but I don't even know where to begin.

I feel as thought there should be an entire class dedicated to this topic in every teacher preparation program.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Maybe the true purpose of this blog is to serve as a guide for what NOT to do.

But, hey! At least I'd still be teaching someone something.


  1. I completely commiserate. I swing back and forth between blaming the kids for not getting something or caring, to blaming myself for how I taught or blaming myself for not holding them accountable enough. It's definitely a double edged sword. I'm hoping others will have some insight as to find that happy medium.

    1. I think this is the problem. Many people feel this way but no one knows what to do about it and, as a result, we often let non-educators make the choice for us.

  2. A lengthy post requires a lengthy response, here goes...

    Simply by asking the question you show your true colors. You want to teach effectively. There is not a teacher out there that doesn't swing back and forth with these questions. The real answer is that when you think you've found the "right way" to teach that's when you should really begin to worry.

    Remember, not every child in your classroom is a student. Google defines student as a person who is studying at a school or college. In order to be considered a student a child must be willing to study. In good years, we have more true students then not. Other years, it may go the other way.

    Ask your STUDENTS, what they need from you. Be prepared for them to be honest. Listen to them. Listen to your own heart. You may not realize it, but you are there. A true teacher never stops creating or questioning the lesson plan.

    1. "Not every child in your classroom is a student" is an incredibly insightful statement and resonates with me. The new me does wonder what you do with the kids who are not? How to do turn children INTO students without sacrificing those who already are.

  3. Interesting post! This could make a good TMC14 session (though more of a discussion than a presentation).

    I also struggle with where the line is. I will take responsibility if kids don't "get" it as long as I see some effort on their part- paying attention in class, doing the assignments, and asking questions. If you decide to mentally check out in class, avoid putting real effort into classwork, and then can't do your homework, I don't have much sympathy. Perhaps I should be more sympathetic, but I have heard from so many former students just how little hand-holding occurs at the high school that I know I can't swing too far in the "it's all on me" direction or my poor kids will flounder next year.

    1. That's where I am too, but then I think "What could I be doing differently to encourage them to put that effort in?"

      I don't have sympathy for those who don't do any work and then fail the tests, but that doesn't change that I have been putting it on myself. "What am I doing wrong that is causing them to disengage, or not engage in the first-place?"

  4. The part that allowed me to change as a teacher was not blaming the students when something went wrong. I always look at what I could have done differently. I think your concern is a legitimate one; however, I do not know if there is a definitive answer. I think teachers need to constantly change between teacher led to student led lessons. Sometimes in math the teacher needs to show them how to do things. That is the nature of the beast. Keep doing what you are doing, Justin. Your students are better off for it.

    1. I was hard for me not to blame them when lessons went poorly, but I have since gotten past that. When lessons go poorly, I know that there are lots of things in play, but most of them are on me. The problem is that the lessons have been going very well, but the out-of-class assignments aren't getting done. I worry that if I make everything an in-class assignment, then I am simply pandering to their wishes and laziness.

      In reality, they HAVE to get used to doing work outside of school. I don't assign an inordinate amount of stuff on the occasions when I assign it at all.

  5. This post definitely resonated for me. I spend a lot of angst trying to find the line that you describe. And as you say, even if it is kids who haven't put in the work, what have I done that made them not be inspired to. I think that I often swing too far toward worrying that it's all my fault. I do have to say that using SBG has helped me a lot lighten up on myself, put the focus on their effort and be super sympathetic and available to help. I hope you decide to take the plunge! It's so worth it!

    1. I think you're very right and this is another reason why I want to move towards SBG. I need to speak more with my curriculum director about getting it up and running. I just have too much on my plate to do it myself, much to my displeasure.

  6. I think everyone struggles with the same issues. It is a delicate balance but it seems like you identified things you could do to help them-adding more structure, talking about it in class, giving some class time etc. The rest is up to them. I make a powerpoint slide of where students are in the project and the next steps with smiley or frowny faces based on how far they are. I tell them what they need to do to get back on track. I also periodically make one bellringer question about the assignment (what step they are on/what they have left to do or more reflective questions about their performance in class and how it can be improved or maintained) I talk to individual students, frequently show them the grades, and contact their parents if the students get too far behind. I’m having more difficulty now with student effort and invited the reading coach in to try to get the students excited about reading for their independent reading. Maybe hearing it from someone else will help…

  7. I sympathize with your position. Although you may have a difficult time identifying the "perfect balance," you know that there is a middle ground. A great, engaging, enthusiastic teacher who is firm but fair is a TREMENDOUS asset in the classroom. But learning is not a passive activity, and the students must bear their share of the responsibility. You can put on a brilliant performance each and every day and not get any results if the kids refuse to put forth appropriate effort. Perhaps there is a way of communicating to them that learning is a TEAM effort. I'm sure that concept has not occurred to very many of your students. Even the ones who are doing well academically may not have specifically considered learning in this way. As part of holding students accountable for their share of the learning process, it may be helpful not only to have a classroom discussion about the roles of both teacher and students in the learning process, but also to develop a contract with them -- one that both they and you sign. Maybe a big poster to display on the wall as a reminder of expectations and a reference for when those expectations are not met. (Because, of course, they will not always be met.) If the students are willing to engage in a circle discussion (everyone has a turn to share their thoughts), it would be interesting to get their take on what they want and need, what you want and need, what the school district requires, and how you can all work together to create a classroom in which healthy learning occurs. Sorry this is so long. I'm tired and going to bed now. Goodnight!

  8. Justin
    First things first - thank you for your thoughtful writing. I discovered your blog through the MTBoS challenge and it's been a delight reading your thoughts.
    Of course, we all know that there is no perfect balance. Not in teaching, not in eating pizza, not in doing crunches to get rid of that pizza we ate, etc That being said, it is our job as professionals to keep tweaking, keep responding to our individual classes each year to find the best approximation of perfect balance. Hell, even in one year two different sections of the same course will need different treatments. One balance I have been able to find - and it will be a bit different due to the nature of the kids we teach - is to do what I'll call remind, then rewind. When one of my Calculus students claims not to know trig, I will (not so gently all the time) remind them that (a) I know what is in their precalc course and know what they've done before, then (b) start off with some hints that (hopefully) lead them back to some conclusions. Sometimes we are just talking about something like an angle addition identity and the pace of the Calculus course makes it difficult to recreate the logic that leads to those answers, so sometimes I resort to just giving it away, but I usually don't have to. By reminding them of what they've done I usually prompt a classmate - who studied precalc by their side - to blurt out what I need. With something more conceptual, like the intermediate value theorem, I'll create some time to discuss ideas and theories but I almost never do so without reminding them that they have had some version of this conversation before. I don't know if everyone leaves feeling happy and satisfied. Some of them probably leave feeling scolded or feeling annoyed that I won't just answer their question with a direct conclusion or formula. However, I feel that it is important to both answer the question (eventually - and it may be the student or a peer that presents that answer) and remind them of their intellectual responsibility to recall, reorganize, and apply ideas and skills from the past.
    One question - Your narrative leads me to wonder how you stumbled upon the TMC. What chain of events resulted in your arrival there?

    Thanks again for starting my brain off this morning with such a thoughtful post.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Jim. I truly appreciate it.

      I got a message from a friend of mine (Sean Sweeney) back in March. He teaches at a private school in Philadelphia and asked me if I was going to TMC. I had no idea what he was talking about, so he explained. He also had me participate in Math Fun Friday's where several of us did a Google Hangout and solved math problems.

      I started getting more and more involved in the community and went to TMC in July. It changed my life in ways that I can't express in words and I've been heavily active in MTBoS ever since.


  9. When I taught public school (my first teaching job), I had very similar frustrations. Why aren't they working? They did the practice problems just fine! Why are they voluntarily taking this elective class and not doing any work? And I did re-teach a bunch of stuff, when it was clear that I'd screwed up or not explained well in the first place. But I had my limits too. And I watched a few of my kids get transferred to the other (and definitely cooler) chemistry teacher... the one I wanted to take class from. And I wanted to be like him, but didn't have the charisma or know-how.

    Now in my current private school, I see the aftermath of a lot of teachers who were like me (along with some learning disabilities and mental disabilities that made it impossible for those kids to function as I would have wanted them). Because I have the luxury of teaching each kid individually, I can take some time to remind them how much they do know and how to figure things out without repercussions.

    And I want to go back to public school. I want to be able to not mess up again. And have the infectious energy of a classroom again. And have a lab with real chemicals again. And if I could be like that other cooler chemistry teacher, mixed with the enthusiasm of MTBoS teachers and your reflection, I'd be an awesome teacher.

    I hope you know what a big fan I am of you and your courage to put it all out here.

    1. Every person who wants to teach has their strengths. Some of my best teachers were VERY uncool and irritating, but I learned an insane amount from them. I also had teachers that I LOVED with all of my heart and didn't learn a single thing.

      Find what your strengths are and play to them! The kids will learn and they will appreciate that you aren't trying to be someone you're not. The will also respect that you are who you are.

      I truly appreciate your words and your willingness to share with me. I'm so glad that you find something of value here and I hope that I can continue to provide that for you.

      Thank you.

  10. Justin! I am so fond of your blog. It tells such a good story of one person's journey, that seems to really resonate with a lot of people. I'm glad "I should blog" became "I will blog every day!"

    One way that I characterize your learning via TMC is to take everything as feedback or data. When a lesson "doesn't go well" or kids don't show evidence of learning, you use your inner scientist to ask, "What in my work does this experience give me data about?" and then you make use of it. I don't think that habit needs to be balanced out, exactly, especially because you are open to data about what the students don't seem to be capable of, yet.

    It sounds like one new conclusion you're exploring in this blog post is that your students aren't capable, yet, of treating their own experiences as data for learning about themselves. So something you can do is to help your students learn to have the mindset you have: here's what happened, here's what I did, is that the ideal outcome, if not, what could I do to improve that outcome? Also, you've learned that for some of your student their ideal outcome is calibrated way lower than yours is! That's always a really sad feeling (although sometimes we're only hearing from them in moments of frustration, later they can see, oh, yeah, I get that I could have done better, and am even willing to think about how).

    John Golden (@mathhombre) is someone I turn to for how to help students be more reflective and meta-cognitive. He does a lot of modeling, first being the one to tell students "here's what happened, that is not the ideal outcome, what can you do?" And he models his own process of that out loud a lot. Later on he expects students to be the ones to do parts of the reflecting, and eventually, to self-initiate.

    I guess what I mean is, maybe it's not an either-or or finding the middle ground in terms of whose responsibility it is. It's everyone's responsibility to learn from what happened and make an improvement plan.

    Where I do see a middle way is in supporting students to find success and letting students fail so that they can learn from failure. And I think this matters SO MUCH MORE when there are disconnects between the cultures, races, socio-economic statuses, languages, etc. of school and home. For example, setting students who are a lot like you up with a project, letting them fail early, and helping them learn from that and recover can work great. But setting students who don't look like you up for a project you aren't sure they'll succeed with can play into a "school is not for me and I am not for school" identification. So one thing I focus on is "what will it take for this to succeed and maximum learning to be achieved?" and try to control all the conditions -- so if I want kids to learn about scaling up, can I get all the other distractions out the way? If I want them to learn about project management, can I be sure that they have time at home they *could* be doing this? Can I be sure they understand what goes into project management? Can I be sure that if they don't get a project in on time, that they'll know how to learn from that to do better next time? If not, what do I have to control so they can focus on the thingy I need them to learn?

    I'm not sure if that helps you think about this, but at least it proves I read the whole thing :)

    1. I completely agree that failing should be the gateway to learning. If they don't learn something from that failure, then it has been a waste, or even detrimental.

      The more I thought about it, the more I realized, that I'm sure they DON'T have any idea what goes into project management. Since my geometry kids have been able to do theirs, I assumed that the others could as well. Clearly, that assumption was wrong and I have to work on it.

      My concern wasn't that they weren't going to get the project done on time as much as "at all." I think most of the kids who didn't turn it in didn't even think about it after they left my class. I do blame myself for that since I should have been reminding them about it, asking about progress, discussing it as a class, etc.

      Your comments, as always, do help. I truly appreciate your insight and suggestions. Thank you so much!

  11. I love you. I haven't read this yet, but I just want to throw that out there. :-p

  12. What I am most impressed with is that you are still writing, despite the set-backs. Well, maybe that's not what's MOST impressive, but it's definitely up there. Thank you for sharing your story.

    I have one of my own to share: a few years ago, I had the privilege of working with a group of teachers from a high poverty district in northern Kentucky. As one teacher expressed his despair over not being able to connect with one of his students, he was reminded by a colleague that we do not each need to be that One teacher who makes a difference for every kid who walks through our classroom door. The reality is, there will be some students/kids who are not interested in connecting with me/you, for reasons we may never fully understand. But we do what we can for as many as we can, and then hope and trust that one of the other teachers in our school can be the One for those we could not reach. I suspect you are that One for more students than you realize, but what really matters is that you are that One for those who need you to be.

    Hang in there man. Thanks for all you do.

    1. The regular blogging helps to put me in the right frame of mind. I still do blame the students and wallow in my anger and frustration until I write about it. Getting the words down helps me to think about the situation from the student perspective as well. It gives me the distance I need to be able to remove my emotions from it.

      I don't write in spite of the set-backs, but because of them. I am go glad that it resonates with other people as well.

      I think the part that's most difficult to remember is that no, we can't be everything to every kid. Try as we might, there are kids that we won't reach for reasons beyond our control. I often do forget that other teachers in the building can help as well, maybe reach a kid that I can't.

      All we can do is be ourselves and help the kids to the best of our ability.

      Thank you so much for reading. I know I do run on a bit... :-)

  13. Well, I just stayed at work an extra 5-10 minutes to read the discussion thread. I read the main part of the blog while half-paying-attention during a three-hour after-school PD we had in my department chair's room. Now it's 8:25 p.m. and I have a burrito waiting for me at La Hacienda Taqueria ...

    Which is to say: your stories, all of them, really resonate with me. I just tweeted you about this "Survivor Math" website that I found out about over the Thanksgiving break, but I haven't had time to look at it yet--I haven't had time to reflect! And I am eager to judge myself about this and to make judgments about how much time I spend reflecting and how much time you spend reflecting, but there, I caught myself, I'm not going to make any judgments.

    What a crazy job this teaching thing is, how about that? That's about all I've got tonight. Like Max, I'm not sure if any of what I said was helpful. However, unlike Max, I didn't even really manage to prove I read the whole thing. Damn!

    1. This is a completely insane job and, in my opinion, as society looks more and more to shift responsibility, it's only going to get more insane. That doesn't mean it's not worth doing, but it does make it hard.

      I wish I had a burrito for the bad days.

      I know how you're struggling this year, but know that I'm there with you. I reflect because it helps me to view what I do from a distance, but I know it's not for everyone. My wife has said that if she tried to reflect in the thorough and open way that I do, she would not be happy.

      I think it may be a coping mechanism for me and I hope it continues if/when things get better. I hope that I can eventually get to a point where I don't have to reflect, but I think if that happens, it will be time to move on.

  14. Hey Mr. Monday Night Competition -

    I am sure that the people in your life (thus far I am only in your digital life) love you for your passionate extremes, and I am sure many of your students will remember you for them as well. That doesn't mean it's easy to be you, but it's how you roll.

    I didn't find your post depressing because I love your honest thought process, and how well you articulate it for yourself and reading audience. I think your cognizance of your pendulum-like tendencies is something that can help you. [Maybe you should laminate this blog post and keep it on your desk, read it once a week. I have done this; it's very helpful and comforting to read something clear and affirming.] Because YOU KNOW that the truth is somewhere in the middle - even if it (the truth) exists. YES - we are the adults in the room, teaching is our job, and we need to stretch our talents every way we can to engage our students in the learning process, if we are being true to our responsibility. But also YES - the children are responsible for being students - that is their job right now. A lot of stuff goes on outside of our classrooms that impacts what goes on inside them, stuff we have no control over. But children need to learn that regardless of the circumstances, when they have a job, they need to try their best to do it.

    I'm thinking you might like this project-based unit I am starting to work on. It's a huge learning process - for me and for the kids - and I am making mistakes daily. But for those kids who have just about given up on math - and maybe other aspects of school as well - it's an opportunity to try something different. And because it will take place daily over 5 weeks, there will be time to fail, miss deadlines, and recover.

    Anyway, I'm going to babble about this over on my blog rather than clutter yours, but all I am trying to say is that (a) your struggle is maybe not it's own reward, but certainly a badge of growth and evolution as a teacher and person and (b) there is more than one truth to all of this, and (c) you bring such great energy to the MTBoS; I know how lucky your students are to be the daily recipient of it (and your artwork). Keep on keepin' on, pal.

    1. I'm really excited to try it out! I printed out two different lessons and I plan to look them over this weekend and order the student books. Hopefully, I'll be able to start them with my Geometry kids in about a week.

      It's so interesting to me to be writing this blog and then reading the comments because I seem to hold two separate ideas in my head at the same time.

      1) This is a lonely and solitary job

      2) Not one of us has to be alone doing this job

      I feel as though I'm able to provide the energy to MTBoS because of how deeply I am inspired by being a part of it. Even after this post, I don't feel that I can truly express HOW different I am this year than all previous years. I'm excited and energized for my job in ways that I can't remember ever being.

      I owe all of that to TMC, MTBoS and all of the amazing people (yourself included) who have accepted me for who I am and what I can offer.

      I am forever in your debt.


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