Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 30 2009

What is my life’s work?

I feel like I’ve grown up faster than I wanted to sometimes. I’ve taught 400 kids mathematics. I’ve dedicated my health and sanity to their education. I’ve put aside my writing projects, my cycling dreams, my mental health, and my dreams for them. And I’m not saying I regret it. I’ve learned so much. Teaching has been a fantastic job because it has shown me how strong I am. It has asked me to be a leader, a planner, a friend, a confidant, a motivator, a paperwork shuffler, a copy-machine repair person, a dance chaperone, a commons cleaner, a climbing coach, a strategy writer, a collaborator, and more.

While reading “What is your life’s work?” as a result of yet another conversation with my principal that left me doubting my job choice I was struck by the following passage:

“I don’t think it matters what one does for work, but what does matter, for me, is that the work is able to sustain and ever-increasing interest; that the work leads in unexpected directions; that it unveils me unto myself. When I feel responsible, I sense how much I’ve yet to learn. And I burn to continue. In the end we are all individuals. You must find your own work a work that is greater than your self. When you find it, you will suffer. When you suffer, you will seek help, and you will grow. When you grow, others will grow along with you.”

In some ways teaching is all of these things. In the past two and a half years of teaching I have found my weaknesses. I’ve suffered deeply. I’ve failed and gone to others to get help. I’ve accepted and benefited from the advice of others who never would have been able to help me on school projects or standardized tests. I’ve felt unappreciated and misinterpreted by some of my administrators. I’ve struggled to deal with behavior, to let go of student judgments of me.

I’m also deeply inspired. I’m reading another book today found at a library sale called “What’s math got to do with it?” A Stanford Math Education Professor observed thousands of hours of classes to determine what made learning successful. My intuition about math education I developed years ago as a math tutor is supported by her research. Learning isolated procedures with no real understanding leads to an inability to apply knowledge, do well on tests and use math in the real world. I saw students as a tutor trying to memorize math, never seeing the logic in it. The questions were always yes or no, with my supplying the answers as a vehicle of truth because they supposed what I’d done as a math major was memorize textbooks. I see that even though I do teach traditionally where we assign isolated problems that practice the skills learned that day I infuse it with what really matters. I’ve inspired many of my students to figure out how to integrate on their own and how to solve optimization problems without ever seeing an example. I’ve shown them that math is used in life and that it was not handed down by god but discovered and argued about. I make them think about why and never encourage rote memorization. When assigning grades I value what I believe is true mathematical learning to the best of my ability. I still don’t feel like a master math teacher.

I feel confident at times because I know that I’m teaching something valuable in the right way. I know that most of them don’t need to know the power rule and the quotient rule and procedures for solving hard problems. I know that they need to be able to use a book, to look up information in varied places, to work together, to solve long problems, to preserver, to check their answers, to solve problems in multiple ways and look for more efficient solutions. But the procedures? How to solve problems 3, 6 19, 29 and if you are really clever 44 from section 6.2? How does that really matter?

I loved the book, “What’s math got to do with it” by Jo Boaler because it says it’s a shame that the work of real mathematicians, the study of patterns doesn’t come until most students have embarked on a math free life where all they remember of the lists of rules and procedures is that they hated them and they are disconnected from what they actually do. I was inspired by teachers who have students solve complicated problems collaboratively. I loved my lesson where we proved that pi/4 = 1/1 – 1/3 + 1/5 – 1/7 +…. and had to learn and review a number of ideas so we could see why something so elegant worked. Perhaps my life’s work is the search for mathematical jewels that can be understood in secondary mathematics and figuring out how to get teachers to use them in their classrooms.

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    Learning more about life than math…

    Las Vegas Valley
    High School

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