Keeping it Real in 7th Grade Math

One of the slipperiest slopes school leaders fall down is the one that leaves us out of touch with the realities of the classroom. The kind of out-of-touch that allows us to forget what it’s like to teach 5 of 7 periods with a team meeting, advisory, study hall supervision, and middle school student crises in between. The kind of out-of-touch that causes us to miss out on rich conversations about students and teaching over packed lunches in a colleague’s classroom. The kind of out of touch that left me completely drained at the end of the day Friday.

In an attempt to remain as close to in-touch as I possibly can, I have committed to teaching one day each month. I taught 7th grade math on Friday. Thanks, Mr. Souhrada, for trusting me with your students and your content. I learned a great deal. I hope the students learned a few things too.

Relationships matter.

As I stood in the hall outside my temporary classroom home before the first period of the day, I immediately recalled why relationships matter. The students had no idea who I was, but in their ego-centric, adolescent angst-ridden way they needed to connect. They engaged me in conversations about the contents of their lockers, their yet-unfinished homework, and their meticulous fashion choices. These students needed to trust that I was interested in them as people. I would not have been able to engage them in the hard work of learning without their trust that I had their interests in mind.

This is true for adults too. I’ll admit to the blogosphere that I heard the words “team planning” and “lunch,” as “time to check voicemails and emails in my office.” I am so grateful for the detailed sub notes that directed me to the team room during team planning time and to Mr. McMillan’s room for lunch. I now better understand the importance of having time to talk to colleagues in both structured and unstructured settings. I gained valuable lessons about students, teachers, and my work that I could not have learned in any other way.

Content knowledge matters.

I was an 11th and 12th grade Language Arts teacher for the first eight years of my career. While maybe not polar opposites, middle school math is certainly in a different hemisphere. I specifically requested to be entrusted to teach, but this expectation was overwhelming. I came face-to-face with the chasm between talking the talk and walking the walk. For years I have worked in professional development settings with math teachers. I can impressively sling phrases like “deep conceptual and procedural knowledge” and “teaching for understanding” at timely opportunities.  

When I had to figure out how to engage students in meaningful learning about solving equations with variables on both sides of the problem and applying strategies to organize information from a math problem to create a mathematical model, I choked. I did what I so often criticize others for doing—I defaulted to re-creating the educational experiences I had—or at least I tried to. Thankfully, my trusted PLN (on Twitter) called me on this and saved me from myself.  I have no question the quality of my teaching was seriously sub-standard that day, but I learned about high quality math instruction at a depth I would not have otherwise.

Good teaching is universal.

This was the realization that got me through the day. While there are some content-specific nuances, there is much about good teaching that is universal. Connect to the real world. Connect to the students. Meet the students wherever they are. Ask questions, rather than provide answers. And, lastly, allow yourself to join in on the fun of being a kid. We adults have a lot to learn from them. And I have a lot to learn from the classrooms around me. 

Next month I teach elementary physical education. I'm already nervous...

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