Sunday, March 18, 2012

Teaching Math - Pt. 4

Having a math degree is pretty worthless for teaching math - in fact, most college degrees are pretty insignificant if you want to teach math. I have two degrees, neither of them in math, both of them in the humanities, and they may be more valuable than a degree in education or a degree in math. Having taught for several years now, I believe that the most important skill is not mastery of any content area, but rather, a teacher's most valuable asset is classroom management.

Classroom management is the both the most important skill and the most difficult skill. Not having it means that even if you have a PhD in mathematics and even if you can somehow teach the content to a college level, you will still be less of a teacher than some guy who barely has mastery of high school algebra, but knows how to keep students quiet and in their seats. To put not to fine of a point on it, classroom management is what it means be a teacher. Nothing else is important - curriculum, assessment, instructional strategies - these are professional skubalon until you learn classroom management.

I write this as someone scarred by my own misfortunes. My first year of teaching was very rough. I had students fighting in my classroom, kids dancing around, and other such nonsense. Multiple days I would go hoarse from screaming, and some days I was honestly holding back tears of frustration. I was sick constantly, both from the intensity of workload and from the stress and fatigue that came from actually trying to teach. Ours is no easy job, not least because of the fact that we are not handed self-motivated, highly mature learners - rather we receive a population of people quite disinterested in the knowledge we would like to share, and our job, part of what makes us uniquely skilled, is that we work to transform what is given to us into what we would like given to us. Being a teacher is not about conveying knowledge of content from one mind to others. Teaching is turning non-learners into learners.

The vessel through which this transformation takes place is the classroom. The captain of that vessel is me, and to ensure that I successfully navigate my students through the year, I set some rules. In the education field we refer to these rules as our "rituals and routines." When I was first told about this idea of creating highly structured sets of expectations for my children, I resented it because my natural mode of engagement with people is not highly structured. I suffered for my foolishness. It is oft stated, but too seldom actually believed and practiced that "children want structure." This has proved to be absolutely true. With each year, I set higher and higher amounts of preset rules and expectations for my students and in doing so they have come to like me more and more each year. The stricter I got the more they enjoyed my class. This, of course, flies in the face of modern notions of "freedom," but it is a fact that cannot be ignored.

Another thing that I've learned about classroom management is that not only are rules to be set and regularly communicated, but that they are to be held to with near blind commitment to the coldest of justice. What I mean is that when you tell a student that you expect them to do something, and they do not meet your expectation, then you must either do one of two things: 1) Correct the student, or 2) No longer expect them to follow your expectation. The key here is consistency. If you do not consistently hold students accountable to your expectations, then you cannot justly expect them to live up to your expectations.

Setting multiple clear expectations and then holding students accountable to those expectations is not something I am naturally good at. This is important. Most people are not natural teachers. 90% of the job is acting, performing, putting on a show. If I care about my students and doing my job well, then I cannot be who I naturally am. I have to change who I am and put on a persona that will help them succeed. Often times, peers will see me in "teacher mode" and they will get a mild chuckle watching me interact with the kids because they know how different that is from my normal personality. In most social contexts, I am the classic quiet, passive, reserved introvert. But starting from 9:15 AM until 4:05 PM, I am somebody else. I become an alpha. It's my job to be this other person and I get better at it every year, with improved results year to year.