Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 02 2011

Is it harder to achieve big goals as a TFA math teacher?

The following is a post by the lovely leader of the Upper Math community on TFAnet, and my reply to it. I’m interested to see what non-math teachers have to say about it, and she just said so many things exactly the way I feel them that I decided her words belong in my blog.

Is it harder to teach math than other subjects or is it just us?

I’m not sure if being a supposed math education “expert community leader” should make the following revelation easier or harder to make but at the risk of alienating all of you out there who have management down and are happily tracking progress towards big goals I’m just going to come out and say it:

I thought I was a TFAilure for most of my first semester teaching.

Check out my blog if you don’t believe me. I believe there is a nice entry about crying on the floor of my classroom feeling like an “exhausted, wasted mass” because EVERY one of my students failed the district algebra exam and my all boys algebra classes wouldn’t stop sexually harassing me. Don’t worry. I’m fine now!

So back to our question. I felt like a failure because my TFA friends had their kids more or less under control and were making substantial gains on district assessments. I looked at the algebra test my kids were supposed to pass at the beginning of the year and wondered given their prerequisite skills how I was ever going to get them there. I could self-diagnose as being on the low end of the “sense of possibility” spectrum. I tried anyways, thinking that if I worked hard enough the TFA fairy might help them pass. That didn’t happen, but I like to think we all learned something of value in the process. Thank goodness for my attempt at a tracking system!

At the risk of inciting the backlash of science, English and history teachers, I’m going to make the unsubstantiated claim that teaching high school math well is harder.
Here’s why:

  • At my high school 50% of the students did not pass the high school math exit exam even though nearly 100% passed the reading and writing proficiency tests.
  • Our mathematics test scores pale in comparison to other countries and there are substantial, long term studies documenting the ineffectiveness of math instruction in even our most affluent schools.
  • It’s likely that most of us are products of math education that emphasized learning procedures without understanding so we have no model of what great meaningful instruction might look like.
  • When students arrive in high school their understandings of elementary and middle school math are weak so it’s extremely difficult to jump straight into grade level material but our calendars and schedules dictate we do this anyways.
  • The vast majority of the curricula in our country includes reams of procedural problems that can be solved by memorizing it’s almost impossible to find or create assessments which include meaningful mathematics.
  • And finally, 93% of the students of Las Vegas, failed the test I was crying about. This included the veteran teachers in affluent communities.

I’m sitting here wondering what the point of all this pessimism is. I know that eventually I did some things I was really proud of with my students and I know that even my first year I profoundly touched some of my kids in the midst of all that self-doubt.

I say this to spark conversation, debate and curiosity. Do we have any CMs out there who helped their students pass a challenging district assessment their first or second year?Do you think there is any point at asking how meeting TFA standards in math is similar or different that in other subjects?

Part of me is terrified that I’m just that one kid who missed the boat, didn’t get my kids invested, and am going to get in trouble for telling new teachers that failure is inevitable. And then I remind myself, I didn’t fail, I have proof of student learning and excessive amounts of proof of progress in my teaching practice. All right, here goes, I’m posting and it’s up to you to tell me if I’m the only one who wonders if there was something different I could have done to meet all the goals I tried to reach.

Happy New Year!
Cameron Byerley

My thoughts in response:

Wholeheartedly seconded, especially “When students arrive in high school their understandings of elementary and middle school math are weak so it’s extremely difficult to jump straight into grade level material but our calendars and schedules dictate we do this anyways.”

If you think about it, it is very rare that a non-math (non-SPED) corps member is able to say that their students are six or more years behind in their subject–but encountering 10th graders who can’t multiply single-digit numbers, subtract with regrouping, or do long division is just part of my daily gig.

It is SO hard, when your friends are starting to get somewhere with their students, to believe your failure is normal and that your kids will eventually make it. The truth is, it might take me so long to figure out how to deal with everything in your bullet points above that they just simply might not (gasp).
But it is SO good to hear that, in spite of that, at the end of it all I might feel something like “eventually I did some things I was really proud of with my students and I know that even my first year I profoundly touched some of my kids in the midst of all that self-doubt.” Maybe I’m a martyr, but hearing that a “failure” year by sig-gains/ big-goal standards might not be a failure at all is MUCH more motivating and encouraging than the “TFA fairy” approach caused by all the blind “you can do this, I believe in you.”

Some thoughts from a discussion I had over some Phase-10 with fellow CMs:

- Don’t forget the fact that many kids have decided they hate math and they hate their math teacher before the first day of school even starts.

- Teaching math might also be harder because if you teach a subject with words, it is easier to make your lessons interesting to students. I find it very difficult to come up with a way to make teenagers care about triangle congruence postulates, but my neighbor can use 9/11 to teach topic sentences.

- BUT!! Teaching math is easier in some ways. Think about the difference between grading 150 paragraphs vs. 150 4-question worksheets. Think about the difference when creating exemplar student responses. Think about how much easier it must be to break down our state standards! (think “add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions” vs. “analyze the relationship between private property rights and the settlement of the Great Plains”)

- AND!! Teaching math might be more rewarding in some ways. It is very easy, and very fun, to watch how students THINK when they do math. And think of how much more satisfying it is to see a student fiiiinally understanding how to solve for x, as opposed to fiiiinally supporting their claims with evidence (this thought was posed by an English teacher who hates math). When a student knows how something in math, they KNOW they know it, they can box their answer, it feels good, and they KNOW you’ve taught them something. A student who is improving in Biology might need a little convincing that they know more than they did in September.

Maybe understanding that math is harder won’t discourage, but ignite. Maybe this means our charge is more vital.

MORE thoughts from MORE discussion, inspired today by reading the above:

- Math seems to be really well suited to the way we are taught to teach. If you teach math, think about how much differently your brain has to work to come up with really salient key points to teach something abstract like figurative language, as opposed to something as concrete as finding the probability of independent events. Also, my English teacher friend brought up the “I do, We do, You do” structure and modeling: modeling a probability problem that looks exactly like one the students will encounter later goes a lot further than modeling how to write a paragraph using figurative language. The former gives you a very good idea of how to do it on your own; the latter merely gives you a teacher example that might not be so accessible. Mathematical thinking is more… prescriptive.

- OR, maybe it’s only prescriptive because it’s so easy to teach math the wrong way. Maybe problem-solving and divergent thinking are just as abstract as the creative thinking required to insert figurative language into your writing effectively, but we cheat and give them a “how to” instead. English teachers don’t have the option of giving their kids something to memorize, and English students a) don’t come in thinking they’re going to memorize something and b) simply can’t be successful without actually understanding what’s going on.

6 Responses

  1. mathinaz

    I love these posts here. Teaching math definitely has its advantages – not only is grading easier, but so is writing problems. Imagine how much harder it must be to scaffold questions in English class?

    I hope it’s true that math is actually more difficult to teach for the reasons listed above, mostly because that would make me feel much better about the progress I make with my students. I do wonder if this is true though… it has to be terrible to teach upper level English to kids who can’t read (although when our math standardized tests involve heavy amounts of word problem reading, I stop feeling so bad for them). I’d love to see the statistics about how far behind kids tend to be in each subject… this is definitely very interesting to think about.

  2. Wess

    Oh goodness, I hadn’t thought of scaffolding. That’s easier for math teachers, for sure.

    It would be crazy hard to teach upper level English to students who can’t read… I just wonder if that happens as often as the math-equivalent. But I also don’t teach very many non-native English speakers.

    Most of the high schools I know about have Social Studies as their highest-scoring subject on standardized tests, with English or Science second, and Math waaay behind.

    My thoughts are very much influenced by my own experience, though. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Justine

    Just to defend my subject a bit, history, I have to say that teaching math or history or English, is equally difficult as all subjects create their own challenges. While yes, many students will enter a math class in be several grades behind, students enter history or English classes while being years behind in reading and/or writing. This itself presents challenges, how can you get your students to read and understand the Constitution when they still have 5th grade reading levels? Just like how can you expect your students to use variables when they’re math levels are at that point yet?

    While most students have only been taught to memorize formulas and such for math, students have also been told to memorize history as a static subject that doesn’t change. It is incredibly difficult to get students to see why history is so important and that it is simply not only a memorization of dates and people.

    The challenges for math and history teachers is actually quite similar. How in the world do we combat years of poor education in any of our fields? You are not alone in this fear!

  4. Very interesting thoughts. From my own experience, I’ve taught both English and History at the high school level and, while I enjoy it more, History is harder to “invest” the kids in. I always envied my Science and Math teacher roommates because the kids always talk about their subjects as though they were much more essential. Math and Science related degrees are the high earners (Doctor, Engineer, etc.) and that is what my kids were “going to be” (never mind that they couldn’t master basic Algebra – or even spell Engineer in many cases). Math and Science seem to come with an added importance. English and SS are “easy.” Who wants to work hard toward a big goal in SS? All of their previous experience in the subject (if any) has been with fun, mostly meaningless group projects. I had one group of students who fondly remembered dressing up as the Pilgrims and reenacting the first Thanksgiving in 8th grade! It was often very hard to get the kids to take the class seriously, especially if it wasn’t tested.

    Just some food for thought.

    • Wess

      Interesting! English definitely is under-appreciated for how crucial and universal writing, comprehension, and grammar skills are for kids, no matter what they decide they’re “going to be.”
      I see what you mean about the difference in how seriously kids take math/science vs. the humanities–there’s a perception that kids who are good at math are “smart” and will go far, where kids who are good at English are just good at Einglish. Maybe they’ll be writers, but that’s not as cool or as lucrative or valuable as a scientist.

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