Thursday, July 3, 2014

Looking Back

One year ago I was done.

It was the end of my 4th year in my current district and, if I want to be completely honest, (which I try to do in this blog) I had never bought in.  I think from day 1 of year 1, I saw it as a place to work and earn some money until something better came along.  This wasn't fair to my coworkers, my students, my administrators, or to myself, but there it was.

My lack of buy-in over those years built up in ways that manifested VERY poorly.  I was rude to my students, thinking them lazy for not conforming to my teaching style.  I was rude to my coworkers, openly wondering why they cared about the things that they did.  I was rude to my administrators, openly questioning their methods and motives in inappropriate ways.

I honestly don't know how I wasn't fired.

At the end of my second year of teaching in the alternative education program at the high school, I was involuntarily transferred to the junior high school.

I roared my terrible roar and gnashed my terrible teeth and rolled my terrible eyes and showed my terrible claws!  And no one cared.

So I checked out even further.  I saw the junior high school as a prison, a place where I was condemned to teach out my career until I either keeled over at my desk, or my frustration at a system that wouldn't conform to my every whim drove me out of teaching.

I was awful.  I think that somewhere deep down, I knew it.  But like most awful people, I wasn't willing to admit it to myself.  I wanted to come in, have kids sitting in rows, eagerly answering my questions, clambering for my attention, desperate to impress me.  I wanted my students to treat me the way I treated my very favorite teachers.  (But only favorite teachers. I was a jerk as a student too.)

It wasn't happening and I was tired of it.

At the end of year 4, I was done.  I was bitter, angry, frustrated, confused, angry, tired and angry.  (Looking back now, I see that almost all of that was at myself.)  I was ready to leave teaching.  Truth be told, I HAD left teaching.  I just hadn't left my job.  But I couldn't leave yet.  I was up to my ears in student loans and, if I stayed one more year, I could get a large chunk of that forgiven.  But how was I going to make it through another year without losing my mind?

I devised a plan.

I was going to be THAT teacher.
"What? No! I'm almost done with this level of Angry Birds."
"Welcome to class. Today, please work on page 238, numbers...all of them."

I was going to let the year soar past me, phoning it in, "doing my time" until I could apply for my loan forgiveness and get out.  Where was I going to go?  What would I do?  No clue! But I had 6 class periods a day for 180 days to figure it out.

Thankfully for me, my students, my school, my family, my soul, etc. this never happened.

In July of 2013, I attended Twitter Math Camp.  It's hard to say exactly what happened there except that when I returned to school in the fall, I was unrecognizable to my coworkers.  They wanted to know what drugs I was on that had turned me around so completely.

Yes, I was still the sarcastic, malcontent that they knew, but I had a new lease on life and teaching.  The people that I met at Twitter Math Camp and in the subsequent months on Twitter (FAR too numerous to name, I'm so sorry to all of you!) had reminded WHY I wanted to teach in the first place.  Not just why I wanted to, but how I could do it in a situation that wasn't my dream situation.

They showed (and continue to show) me how to make an amazing cake from whatever happens to be in the house, no shopping necessary.  This is a vast oversimplification, but I've written a ton already and I haven't even begun reflecting on this past year.

One of the major ideas that I heard at TMC was the concept of the 180-Blog.  In short, a teacher would post SOMETHING every single day that they taught for an entire year.  Most teachers who do this will post a picture, or perhaps a paragraph.

I am verbose.

I decided that with my blog, I wanted to keep track of what was happening in my class, but more importantly, what was happening in my head.  I needed to know that this change I had undergone was real and not just the results of someone slipping Zoloft into my coffee.

I allowed this blog to be a stream of consciousness.  I wrote about my thoughts, my plans, my hopes.  I only wrote about my students insofar as it related to my interactions with them or how I saw challenges.  At least, I think so.

Instead of a picture and a paragraph each day, I wrote a novela.  I didn't set out to.  I just wrote what was in my head and it just kept falling from my fingers.

During the 2013-2014 school year, I wrote more than 300,000 words of reflection on my teaching practices and philosophies.

According to Amazon, the average novel is 64,000 words meaning that during this school year, in which I was supposed to put my feet up, update my resume, play games on my iPhone and relax, I wrote the equivalent of 5 novels.

Or the length of Game of Thrones.
Or about this many pages...

I don't say this to brag.  It was a completely insane thing that I did and I don't think ANYONE should write that much.

I say it because, as a numbers guy, it clearly illustrates my commitment to becoming a better teacher.  I even titled this blog "Relearning To Teach" because, clearly, I had not done it before, regardless of what I thought.

I didn't have a plan for it beyond allowing my mind to spill onto the pages.  I never dreamed that anyone other than my mom would care about it or read it.  But here it is.  The year is over and I need to think about how it went.

It was better than last year.

What? You want more? Fine!

This was a year of risk-taking for me and I think that it paid off.  I moved much closer to the teacher I want to be, but that has come with unexpected consequences.  My various discussions with other teachers have lead to the conclusion that I don't know what I'm looking for in terms of progress among my students.

I know what I want them to be able to do.  I want them to have better logical and reasoning skills.  I want them to be able to analyze problems and develop solutions.  More than any of this, I want them to be able to create their own problems out of concepts and topics that interest them and be able to pursue those to the end.

But I have no idea how to assess any of this.  I have looked into the idea of standards based grading and think (90%) that I want to move that way.  This is because of the fact that I cannot explain the difference between an 89% and a 90%.  How could I justify giving those two grade to two different kids?  An A, a B, what's the difference and how do you justify that?

I still have much progress to make in terms of my interactions with students and parents.  As I'm sure is true for most teachers, I get along and am liked much more by students who are from backgrounds similar to my own.  I am making strides to broaden that group.  I am taking more time to put myself in the place of my students and ask different questions.

I am listening more.  Not enough yet, but I'm getting there.

I had some pretty amazing lessons and pretty great discussions with students this year.  As the year went on, I found myself slowly falling back into some of my old mental habits and tried very hard to pull myself back out.  Everything between Christmas and Easter was hard.  There were a ton of disruptions and it was tough to get a class rhythm going.  In several cases, student resistance broke me down and I went back to work sheets for my own sanity.  After a few days, I started up again, trying so hard not to quit.

I used to think that phrases like "I discovered 100 ways NOT to build a house" were platitudes from idiots who couldn't be trusted with hammers.  In the past year, I have learned how to embrace my mistakes and even celebrate them.  I want my students to be willing to make mistakes, so how could I expect that of them when I wasn't willing to do it?

After discussions with my mom, my wife and other teachers, I think that my main source of frustration with myself this year was my inability to change the mindsets of many of my students, mostly the students in pre-algebra.

Specifically, getting them to understand the difference between work and productivity.

Because I love analogies, I thought about it this way:

We are digging a ditch.  My goal was to help my students understand why we were digging it, where it was going, the purpose it served and hopefully have them develop efficient ways to get the job done.

A problem that I ran into, however, was that many students would spend the day digging, but not in any specific direction or with any goal in mind.  Many of these students, while digging at full speed, were throwing their dirt on other students, usually by accident.  When I tried to redirect their efforts into the direction we needed, they pointed to all of the work they did and were upset that it was a waste.

This, too, is a vast oversimplification of the purpose of school and the goals of my class, but I couldn't find a way to convey the idea that putting numbers on a page is not the same as solving problems.  This is something I need to work on.

I also need to be easier on myself.  This is a journey.  I can't expect immediate results, no matter how badly I want them.  If I keep my goals in mind and work on them, then maybe in 10 years I will be the teacher that I want to be.

I am deeply thankful to everyone from Twitter and beyond who has helped me to find my path again.  There are, as I said, WAY too many to name, but if I've interacted with you at all in the past 12 months, know that I'm talking about you.

I hope that I will continue this blog next year because I have come to believe that reflection is the best way for me to examine where I was, where I am and where I'm going.  Doing it so publicly has helped to keep my words in the forefront of my mind.  I knew that if I had a bad interaction with a student, I was going to have to write about it later.

This is, I suppose, the reflective practice equivalent of a food journal.

While I have always written this blog for me, I greatly appreciate all of the feedback that I've received from my readers, a list of which turns out to be longer than "my mom."

Thank you.


  1. As the aforementioned mom, I want to tell you how proud of you I have been this year. Your brutal honesty and persistence were a wonder to behold. I felt such joy at being able to slip past your sometimes taciturn exterior to view what was inside; catching a glimpse of the maelstrom that was you, in all its terrible beauty. I'm so grateful that you let me share this with you, that when you asked for feedback you were truly engaged in the dialog and that having reached adulthood, you still allow me to be an important presence in your life.

  2. I love the ditch-digging analogy! I think it is very apt. Have you tried using that analogy with your students to illustrate the difference between working hard and making progress?

    1. I have not, but I'm curious how they would react to it. I think it's good for people who see the purpose and value in education, but I worry that my students would think that I was saying the learning was equivalent to digging a ditch. :-/

  3. Great reflections, thanks for this Justin.

    1. Thank you for reading! I greatly appreciate it.

  4. Justin, it was great to spread your thoughts this year. In the "off-season," it might be worthwhile to also reflect on what your mindset was as a junior high student. Sometimes the best we can do for that age group is to help them not hate each other, the world, school, and learning. If we get them to LIKE any of those things, we've done well.

    1. I think this is one of the major issues that I've been having and why this year was so different. When I was in Junior High, I was the type of kid who would have been in my geometry class. Those are the kids that I can relate to with minimal effort. I think this is why I enjoyed that class and had so much success with them.

      My real struggle is with the pre-algebra students, not because of content, but because I struggle to understand who they are and where they come from. They, for the most part, have vastly different upbringings and priorities and experiences than I did. My major goal going forward is to try to better understand them so that I can be the teacher that they need.

  5. Thanks for every thing Mr. Aion; you were my favorite teacher this year for good reason.

    1. Thank YOU, Pike. You're a good kid, but if you tell anyone I said it, I'll deny it.

  6. Proud to be part of your Twitter PLN!

  7. Excellent post and some great reflections, as always. But there's a hole in the story that I'm curious about, and since no one here seems to have addressed it, I will. (Perhaps stupidly, as it may have been remarked on elsewhere, but whatever.) You were going to "phone it in". You went to "Twitter Math Camp". You got a new lease on teaching.

    Back up. Why expend the time and energy on going to a "Math Camp" if you planned on simply "doing your time"? Were you hoping to get some "quick and easy lessons" and got more than you bargained for? Were you nudged in that direction by a colleague - or by your conscience? Or had you signed up before you decided to pack it in, then afterwards decided that it would simply be easier to show up than cancel? Because even in that last case, it feels like there must have been something there, an ember that simply needed to be acknowledged. It makes me wonder where else that sort of seed exists.

    1. That's a very good question. It actually started slightly before TMC when Sean Sweeney asked me to join the Math Fun Fridays that people were doing. I don't know what I was really hoping for from TMC when I went. Maybe somewhere I was hoping that it would remind me what I loved about teaching, or show me how I could be happy doing it again.

      Perhaps I wasn't REALLY ready to pack it in and was hoping for an excuse to stay. My district has many challenges, as all do. The problem is that I don't know how to deal with many of the specific challenges where I am. I took that as a failure on the part of the district when, in reality, I was just too lazy to find a solution.

      This past year had some really amazing circumstances that helped me to remember why I do what I do, including several from my district, my school and my principal.

      I always perform better for an audience, so perhaps, knowing that people from TMC were going to be watching what I did this year helped to push me to a better place, to not give up when I wanted to. As you and I have talked about, I did write this blog for me and anyone who read it was a bonus, but knowing that SOMEONE was reading it was very helpful.

      It was like having a workout partner pushing you to do better, rather than going to the gym (or running) alone. Just having another person there keeps you from saying "meh. that's good enough."

    2. Or, maybe more honestly, I didn't care about the math, or the teaching. Maybe it was that I liked the people I met during the Math Fun Friday's and wanted to hang out with them.

  8. So you were doing some networking, consciously or not. Perhaps in the process discovering that, in the end, we're not all that different? (Perhaps I should stop speculating?) At any rate, I'm glad you've ended up where you're at, all the best going forwards.

  9. I really enjoyed reading this. I appreciate the vulnerability that you showed and your honesty about your thoughts and mindset. This summer, I began using Twitter to (hopefully) grow as a teacher and not just as a mean for retweeting funny cat videos. I'm still standing at the edge of the pool, testing the waters, not fully ready to dive in. I typically read, retweet, and mark as "favorite", but rarely contribute. There is a bit of intimidation in putting your ideas out there for others to see (and potentially judge), because everyone in the Twitterverse seems to have it all so together. Posts like this are a great reminder that we're all imperfect but capable of growing. Thanks for giving me a bit of confidence to jump in and fully commit.

    Luke (@lukeadaniels)

    1. Welcome!

      One of the great things about the Twitterverse is that being a lurker is totally cool! There are a ton of a great ideas and people out there (including you). Watch, read, think, and then jump in and talk when you're comfortable.

      Also, I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone (other than maybe Dan Meyer) who feels as though they have it together. I feel like a fraud every time someone tells me how much they like my writing or appreciate something I've posted.

      One of the shortcomings that I've seen in the community over the past year has been a lack of willingness to talk about our failures. There is tons of "this lesson was great!" and it often makes some of us feel inadequate.

      I've become a huge proponent of celebrating and discussing our failures. If I didn't talk about mine, I'd have nothing to talk about!

      In any event, I'm so glad you've decided to join us. If there is anything I can do to help, please don't hesitate to ask. If I can point you in a certain direction, or just listen, I'm happy to do so!

  10. I had no idea all of this was going on with you. Can I add my .02 and say I'm proud of you? (Not that it *matters* if I am, just that I am?)

    Also, you should come to Antioch. We like people like you (the ones who take on the hard process of looking inward no matter what they might find)- in fact, we're made for them.

    1. I've put much of this to the side because I've been trying to focus on things that I can change and how to be productive. Many of the concerns and complaints that I have about my current situation are external to me and, therefore, out of my control. I know I've been baring my soul this year, but this point strips me naked, I think (emotionally only, thank goodness...)

      You may absolutely add your two cents! And it does matter to me. Thank you!

      I would love to come to Antioch. Do you have any programs where you pay people to hang out and talk about their experiences? Apparently I'm good at that.


  11. This is a great reflective post Justin. I've enjoyed following your struggles and getting ideas for managing my own ups and downs in the classroom. I look forward to more of it next year!

    1. Thank you very much! Hopefully, I'll be able to continue this journey in a meaningful way.

  12. Thanks for sharing, Justin, and thank you for your honesty. You've helped motivate and encourage me, and I didn't know it started mainly with TMC. I've really wanted to go to TMC but now you've pushed me to try that much harder next summer, so thanks!

    1. I think that I was toying with the change before TMC, but that was certainly what pushed me over the edge into "This needs to happen AND I can do it!"

      Even without TMC, the people whom I have met online in the MathTwitterBlogoSphere have been instrumental in helping me to change my attitude about what I do and how I do it.


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