When I first started teaching as a 20 something living on a tropical island I was decidedly not a super teacher. I learned how to be a decent teacher, good classroom management, knew my subject matter, and did a decent job of I do, we do, you do. I figured I was doing a better job than most but nowhere near as good of job as the “Super” teachers. Honestly, I was more interested on how the surf was breaking than how my students were performing. By the time I left the classroom to run the teachers union I had my system down. Flash forward a decade and I’m back in the classroom. This time things are a bit different.
As a young man I used to say, “The best thing about teaching is that it doesn’t interfere with your life very much.” This is the type of thing that ignorant young people say and of course it interfered with my life. Even then I worried about my kids and how I could help them. My top ten percent always did magic and some of them are still my friends to this date. What I did not do is invest the time needed to help raise the other 90% up to their level. I fell into that fixed mindset of it’s someone else’s fault/responsibility. Today, I am older, hopefully wiser and definitely more experienced which means that I can no longer lie to myself that it’s someone else’s problem.
I have 150 kids who will spend 150 hours a year with me. They come to me with 4th to 10th grade mathematical skill sets and I now accept the responsibility of improving their lives. I believe that this was my first step on the road to being super, accepting responsibility. It is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. My students come to me with a ton of challenges that are far beyond my control. I can’t help their single mom get a better job so that she doesn’t have to work 60 – 80 hour weeks. I can’t help them find a place to live other than their car. I can’t help them deal with the psychological drama of being in the foster care system. The number of things that I can’t help them with is huge and could become overwhelming if I let it. Fortunately, my years as a labor leader taught me not to let compassion overload consume me even if it does still lead to a sleepless night or twenty. What I can do is give my kids the best chance of improving their lives as possible by helping them grow their brains and become good problem solvers.
Modern brain research tells us that the more math kids do the more their brain grows and the higher the cognitive demand the more the growth. Not only does high powered math grow their brains but it gives them team work skills and analysis techniques all of which ultimately leads to them becoming better problem solvers which I believe helps them to lead a happier life because what is life but a series of problems. This is a huge responsibility. Even though it is sometimes overwhelming, it is one that I now not only accept but also relish. This may be my last opportunity in life to change the world and I am not going to waste it.
When I reentered the classroom I was fortunate enough to be a part of a training project that tried to help our department understand and adopt modern best practices of teaching and learning math. At first I was a little bit cynical as to the amount of work they wanted us to do but as learned more I began to understand. After the second year my attitude was well on its way to changing and by the time we adopted CPM in my third year back I was ready to embrace it. Now into my third year of teaching CPM I have enough knowledge and experience (in part thanks to some really great CPM training) to have put together a really exciting and engaging top notch high powered math program. Of course, that does not mean that I’m done and can just show up and turn the crank. No, it means that now I’m faster at identifying holes and weaknesses. It means that I know a lot more places to find the resources to try to meet and enrich these challenges. It means that I now have a greater and deeper understanding of how my student’s brains work and how they actually learn math. It means that I know when I try to justify my failures.
At this point I’m really excited about being a math teacher. I think that I am getting closer to becoming a super teacher. That being said, I don’t think I ever will be a super teacher because the more I learn the more I can recognize what I have yet to do and learn. In the end maybe that’s what being super is.