K is for…

I’ve really been struggling to come up with my word for K. I had great suggestions for topics, I just didn’t know what to actually write for any of those topics. I know my L and M topics and want to get to them, but I was stuck on K. I had settled on K being for kiddos and just filling a post of the funny things my kids say. But then I worried y’all wouldn’t find their hero-worshiping of me quite as endearing as I do. {kidding… sort of}.

As I was driving home today, I was thinking about all the people that have posted pictures showing that their copies of Tracy Zager’s new book, Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You Had have arrived. I’ve been excitedly, and until this week, patiently, waiting for this book since April 2014 and I’m sick with jealousy that mine hasn’t come yet. But anyway, I was thinking of it and the book club that my friend Debbie and I run. Well, mostly she runs it. I just suggest book titles and provide non-helpful, witty banter during our meetings. Yesterday she finalized a beautiful flyer to reach out to people in our quasi-district. This is year 3 of our club, and our (her) outreach efforts haven’t gotten us too far in the past. Fortunately, we’ve had a delightful time meeting and discussing, and sometimes even reading the assigned chapters (but, ok, not usually) {It will be different this time, Tracy, I PROMISE!}.

Yesterday I walked into the teachers’ room to get my lunch. I eat in my classroom because a bunch of 8th graders like to work on their homework and hang out. I know this probably makes the other teachers not like me since I don’t hang out with them, but that’s ok. As I was warming up my lunch, I casually asked the primary teachers who were in there – “hey is anyone interested in joining my math book club?” Their reaction? Well one of them laughed at me. Then finally someone else at least said, “what do you read in a math book club? I don’t even have time to be in a ‘real’ book club.” Another echoed the, “I don’t have time,” sentiment.

Time is valuable, I understand that. But there are other valuable things for which we make the choice to make the time. I was thinking about the reactions and the very favorable reactions that my partner in crime received – some from mutual friends and some from colleagues in her school. I was jealous. In my head I started thinking of an email I could send. It immediately became something I knew I couldn’t send. But it also became the perfect topic for K.

K is for Keeping it Real.

Here is the email I’d like to send, but won’t. Is it because I want to keep a peaceful environment and I already fear I’m the outsider? Is it because I’m not brave? Or is it simply because I know it would be ignored? (BTW – it’s way too long, but that’s because I know I’m not actually sending it. If I got an email this long, I wouldn’t read it either.)

Hi Everyone!

I hope you saw the flyer that I hung on the white board and put in your boxes. I want to warmly invite you to join our book club. We have a blast and it’s so fulfilling to have a monthly check in with other teachers from the Diocese. We would so love to expand our circle from just middle school to include lots of primary people as well. We have so much to learn from each other! In the past we’ve often “forgotten” to read the book, but I know that’s not going to be the case with this one. Tracy is a friend who I met in 2014. The very first night I met her, she told me about this book. I’ve been so excited ever since then and finally it’s here! I have seen and heard Tracy present in about as many formats as possible, and she is always inspiring and full of amazing ideas. And now they are all in print for us to share! I absolutely cannot wait to dig into this book! As I told her when I was reading the e-book, I want to treasure and hug every single word.

I know that I’m the token math nerd around here. I know some of you really enjoy teaching math, and for others I know it’s not your favorite subject. I want to tell you a story. While I’ve always enjoyed math, I never anticipated becoming a math teacher. I wasn’t always the math nerd that you all know and love. I was tired of teaching and was trying to figure out what else I could do with my life a few years ago when Common Core came into my life. It actually totally reinvigorated me. Having no training and no resources and teaching 4 different math classes forced me to dive in and figure it out. This is when and how I became connected to the most extraordinary collection of people I know and how I fell in love with teaching math. It was frustrating and overwhelming that I was doing it all on my own, but it ended up changing my life in ways that you can’t imagine.

Somewhere along the way, I became friends with my friend Debbie through a former mutual colleague of ours. At one point Debbie was told by the superintendent that our own personal professional development was up to us individually. That’s a frustrating thing, to be sure. However, it became an open door and open invitation to see what was out there. I began to crave knowledge about how to teach math well. Then a funny thing happened, as I started to learn more, I craved knowing more and more and I just kept going.

Now, in my case, I’m profoundly lucky to have a dad who, when first hearing of my interest in conferences, sort of gave me carte blanche. For as long as I can remember, he has gone to major conferences all over the country and developed an amazing network of colleagues. He has served as president of the main organization and has been repeatedly recognized for his leadership and work in his industry. He knows how much he has gained in his career by his interactions with his worldwide colleagues, and he wanted the same for me. He has paved the way to allow that to happen. Am I spoiled? Yes, very much so. I realize that. These experiences I have had have changed my life in ways that I can’t describe. I am the exception, and I’m very aware of that.

At some point, because I am the exception and most people are not granted the opportunities I’m lucky to have, Debbie and I started getting together locally to become better together. One of the ways we chose to do that was by reading a book together. At times, we’ve had other teachers join us. Typically there have been 2 others who have been our compatriots for book club. We have found this time to be incredibly valuable to grow as teachers, as professionals, and as friends. We are able to discuss what’s going on in our classrooms and in the diocese, and bounce ideas off of each other. Sometimes these discussions are guided by our book club selections, but often they just arise out of our own needs. We meet for dinner and end up spending hours because we just have so much to talk about. Yes, it is a time commitment, but it’s so worth it. It’s only one night a month, and making that time has become a really important priority.

A funny thing happened when Debbie and I started collaborating and I started getting connected and going to conferences. I fell in love with teaching in a way I’m not sure I had even at the start of my career. Common Core actually kind of saved me in that way. Trust me when I tell you that along the way I have been challenged by basically everything I thought I did well. I would read an article or book and be like, wow, I suck. But rather than staying there, I kept going to see what I could do better. I had to be really vulnerable and accept that everything I thought I knew and everything with which I was feeling confident, was not actually helping my students. I had to have a huge shift in my mindset. I’ve had personal challenges to that mindset so many times along the way, trust me. But I kept going, and I fell in love. There is a Maya Angelou quote I love that comes to mind when I think about these experiences, “I did then what I knew best, when I knew better, I did better.” So, so fitting.

When I left HTS to come here, the word that I heard over and over from parents was “passion.” I was really proud that that was my legacy – developing a passion for math in my students. It wasn’t abilities, it wasn’t problem solving, it wasn’t test scores – passion for learning math was what I helped them to discover, and that would never have happened if I had not first found that passion myself.

I know that when I talk about my “math stuff” you probably think that I have it easy because I only teach one subject. There’s a ton of truth to that. I have the advantage of investing time into one thing and if it doesn’t work for one grade, it probably will for another. I get that you don’t have the same chance to dig in to see where the standards come from and where they are going and how what you do in the lower grades affects things that happen in the older grades. I’d love to have these conversations with you. I have the advantage of seeing a huge chunk of the progression from the kids who come in as little babies in 5th grade, grappling with multiplication and division, to the teenagers we send off to high school, armed with quadratics and proportional reasoning. It gives me an amazing opportunity to grow the relationship and get to the heart of the mathematical understanding with each of them. I’m so lucky. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t also face challenges- so many of them! My main one is how to fit 5 year of curriculum into 4 years, when what we really should be focused on is depth, not breadth. And don’t get me started on HS placement and acceleration! These things keep me up at 3 am more nights than I care to admit. I know as teachers we all have 8 million things to do on our to-do lists. But I want to challenge you to add one more thing. Buy this book. Commit to reading it. You don’t have to join my book club, but I’d love for you to. I’d love to have our own book club after school one day a week or month. We can even have it at the bar if you want. I want you to discover the profound joy that I have found in teaching math. I know Tracy’s book would be an amazing way to start that discovery. I think, in the end, if we want our students to grow and to learn, we must start by doing the same. How do you choose to grow as a teacher? What do you want to learn?

Let me know how I can help.

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4 thoughts on “K is for…

  1. Debbie says:

    Once again, an amazing post! So honest and open and vulnerable. So happy to be your partner in crime! Your Kiddo and all of us are lucky to have you. (And you’re crazy if you think you only contribute witty repartee.) Can’t wait for L!

  2. Jill buecking says:

    Just an FYI: thanks for keeping it real. And anytime you want to send me a long email just to get it out into the world and have someone say “go you”, I’m here for you!

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