If you ask me what I do for a living, I would say, “I learn,” and when the questioning look appears upon your face at what seems like a fairly odd answer, I would continue “…because I teach.” I learn because I teach.
To me, teaching is so much more than my job or something I do; teaching is a passionate commitment to learning. A commitment that I believe we owe not only to ourselves, but most importantly to our students.
Each day we ask our students to be curious about what they’re learning in our classrooms, so shouldn’t we be as well? Shouldn’t we be continually curious about what they already know, curious about the ideas they are learning, and curious about how we can structure experiences that enable them to make sense of the mathematics?
In middle school, I was always labeled an excellent math student. In every math class, from kindergarten through 7th grade, I earned top grades and passed all assessments with flying colors. Needless to say, I was very confident in what I saw as my math ability. As a result of excellent report cards and high test scores, in 8th grade I was placed in the advanced pre-algebra class with other students who excelled, as I did, in math. I was incredibly excited to be in the class. That’s where I felt I belonged, with all of my other “high achieving” peers, right?
What I saw at the time to be such an honor, turned into one of the most deflating learning experiences of my life. From day one, the teacher flew through the material while I was expected to simply memorize and recite mathematical ideas without any understanding of the why behind them. I honestly cannot recall one mathematical thing I learned that year — not because I didn’t learn something, but because I was so overwhelmed by my struggle.
I struggled, quite unproductively, to make sense of every piece of the math every single day of my 8th grade year. I struggled in school doing classwork. I struggled at home with my homework. I struggled to earn Cs and Ds at best. I eventually lost all confidence I had in myself as a math student. Don’t get me wrong, I celebrate mistakes and encourage productive struggle in classrooms every day in order for students to make sense of the math and develop perseverance; this, however, was not that type of struggle. My struggle in this moment was rooted in not being able to make mathematical connections between what I knew and what I was supposed to be learning. It was between being right and being wrong. I either knew it or, more often than not, I didn’t.
After receiving my first, and only C, I ended the school year crushed with the feeling that I was bad at math. I saw that C as my fault and felt as if my earlier math successes were all a fraud; I had only done well because the math was easy in the earlier grades.
Reflecting back on this experience, I wonder how that year may have been different if my teacher had been curious about what I did know instead of constantly making apparent everything, and I mean everything, I didn’t. Sadly, what I didn’t realize at the time was that I am a learner who needs to know the why. The why is how I make sense of the math.
When I made the decision to retake pre-algebra in high school, I had a teacher who brought that realization to life. Mrs. Evans taught in a way that helped me understand what the mathematical ideas truly meant. She let me struggle, but always pushed me to look deeper into the mathematical relationships to make sense of what was happening and, most importantly, she supported me in believing once again that I was an excellent math student. She cared about me and believed in me. She restored my self confidence as a learner. It was truly a life changing year for me and one I have carried with me to this day.
After that year, I wanted to be that person for other people. I wanted to make a difference in how students experience mathematics. I wanted to build their confidence as learners — to show them that I value their learning, want to continue learning for them, all the while caring equally about them as individuals. I wanted to be a teacher.
Kristin Gray is a National Board Certified fifth grade math teacher at Richard A. Shields Elementary School in the Cape Henlopen School District in Lewes, Delaware and a Teaching Channel Laureate. During her 19 years in education, she has taught 5th–8th grade math, and spent two years as a K-5 Math Specialist. She feels fortunate to be involved with Illustrative Mathematics and Teaching Channel on projects developing math tasks, facilitating professional development, and blogging about these experiences. She is always excited to share her love of teaching at conferences such as NCTM, NCSM, ISTE, as well as on her blog. Follow Kristen on Twitter: @MathMinds.