How the other half works

I was a classroom teacher until this past November. The last 6+ years were spent in the high school math classroom. I got pretty comfortable in the high school classroom. In my new role, I’m collaborating with teachers at all levels.

In fact, I was fortunate enough to explore the extremes of that spectrum in the last week. A few days ago, I spent about a half-hour brainstorming with a teacher regarding his calculus class. He had some outstanding (and quite lofty) goals about integrating STEM ideas of authentic problem-solving and authentic assessment, experimentation, design and engineering into his calculus class. I didn’t have much to offer him, I’m sorry to say. I’ve never seen a class operate in the way that he was hoping.

Two days later, I was observing a math instructional strategy for about a half-hour in a kindergarten classroom. The teacher was fantastic: talented, warm with her students, and quite skilled in the areas of classroom management and math instruction. I was observing her class as they explored some quantity discrimination with manipulatives. Beans for counters and a spinner to determine whether that pair of students would express a “greater than” or “less than” sentence. I really enjoyed this teacher’s style. She chuckled as she said, “whoever decided that beans and spinners should be used together with kindergartners really should have rethought that.”

It got me thinking about my own background. Teaching is immersive. It isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. Even aside from all of the time a teacher spends in his/her classroom (or working outside of their classroom), the work is very stressful and requires a lot of mental energy. Teachers seek other teachers’ counsel, other teachers’ advice.

In the end, no one can help a frustrated teacher quite like another teacher who has walked a mile (or seven) in the same frustrated shoes.

This reality leads to two very understandable outcomes. First, many teachers I’ve talked to have expressed that advice is only helpful when targeted directly to their specific situation. (“Well, that fella had some good things to say, but has he ever tried to teach Algebra I? No…” I’ve heard different variations on this many times.)

Second, there is often a huge, HUGE disconnect between secondary teachers and elementary teachers. Since 2005, I have been a team member in three different districts as a secondary teacher (one very big, one very small, and one medium) and I can think of exactly two times… TWO… that I was in a instructional math meeting that involved bringing any elementary teachers in.

Both times, the vibe was very much, “Hey listen, you elementary school teachers are making our jobs harder, so I tell ya what: why don’t you let us tell you how this should be done and then we’ll all get back to work.” I’m sorry to say that I’m not blaming others. I know this is how I was in those meetings.

As a secondary teacher, I never had a classroom full of students who were struggling to understand that 5 x 2 = 10. Sure, I had students who certainly didn’t know their multiplication facts, but I never had to build 5 x 2 = 10 as new knowledge. What’s that like?

As a secondary teacher, I never had a classroom full of students who needed time to develop the understanding of the statement: “If you are counting objects, the last number you say is the number of objects there are.” What’s that like? How do you structure that lesson? How do you differentiate that?

I’ve never watched a student struggle to learn a new topic only to realize that the reason they are struggling is that they don’t know how to read or conceptualize that the two digit number they are seeing on the page in front of them. I had some students who didn’t read well, but I don’t recall having a student in class who didn’t know what 12 meant.

But there are places where this is commonplace. And I’ve learned so much by having to consider what math education looks like at this level. And it makes me wish that I had been forced to walk a mile or two in their footsteps while I was struggling to understand why my students couldn’t understand fractions.

In the modern times, it seems there is a resurgent appreciation for collaboration, classroom observations, and teachers learning from each other. I wonder what value it might add to a teaching staff to have the teachers from the high school take a day to watch expert practitioners at the elementary level? And what value might it add to have the kindergarten teacher sit-in on an Algebra I lesson?

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