Back to Blogging

It has been nearly four months since my last blog post.

Implementing our district’s Common Core algebra 1 curriculum along with a “flipped classroom” approach to AP Calculus AB consumed every “free” moment of my time this semester.  While the third year of teaching supposedly marks the easing of the frenetic pace of the first two years, my fifth semester did not follow that trajectory.  If anything, it was one of the more difficult ones with challenge after challenge emerging, mostly stemming from what I consider an overzealous algebra 1 curriculum for Common Core that does not align with the prerequisite knowledge and skills of our students.  The bottom line: most students who presently are scheduled for algebra 1 in high school are ill-equipped to succeed in the course.  In fact, nearly 80-90 percent of them took algebra 1 as eighth graders and did not pass the high school equivalent examination.  Hence, they are destined to repeat the course without receiving needed interventions to improve their ability to succeed the second, third, fourth, or even fifth time around, as it is nigh impossible to intervene effectively with a student while simultaneously teaching them “new” concepts for which they need to have mastered the material for which they are receiving intervention support.  Even with interventions, many students struggle mightily given the challenges they face on a daily basis.

Given these challenges, I continuously work towards getting underprivileged students to recognize the importance of school to their future lives and to commit to active learning.  Doing this while managing the various behavioral problems that plague some of my students has drained me this semester.  Compounding the energy loss, most of my algebra 1 students continue to fail at demonstrating even the most basic understanding of, and skill with, the essential elements of algebra, or even arithmetic.  This is a wholly unsatisfactory experience for me, especially as I have poured my heart and soul into finding methods to help my students.  Further frustrating my efforts, our district’s “teacher-created” algebra 1 curriculum ignored the massive skills gap present in our student populations opting instead for a “rigorous” curriculum that few students could begin to grasp, in spite of the fact that I trimmed much of the content that would have further overwhelmed students.  Even with a thinned curriculum focusing on linear equations and systems of linear equations, nearly two-thirds of my students received a D or an F in the course, with nearly forty-five percent failing.  No teacher feels successful when this occurs.

Fortunately, the fall semester fades away while a new spring semester awaits.

I hope to rejuvenate my spirit and passion for teaching during this Christmas and New Year holiday break.  To do so, I need to reconcile my desire to help underprivileged students with the paradoxical plight they face where multiple factors conspire to cloud their ability to understand the necessity to invest themselves fully into their learning.  For without sustained, active effort on a student’s part, teachers, alone, are unable to overcome the host of factors that complicate student learning.  These factors range from student inattentiveness to a lack of sustained practice to an inability to recall needed facts and/or procedures to self-destructive thoughts and behaviors to other factors that confound teachers, administrators, parents, researchers, pundits, reformers, and educators of all stripes.

May the spirit of the season find a way to rekindle my flame for teaching students in need.  For without being on fire to teach in these challenging environments, I will not be able to continue in a field that truly holds my heart and interest.  While I firmly believe I am good for teaching, I am not sure teaching is good for me…

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About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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8 Responses to Back to Blogging

  1. Cal says:

    Hey, let’s do coffee. I’m moving to East Bay, but there’s always time for coffee.

    I did tell you this would happen. (and you agreed, as I recall). Why didn’t you just ignore the curriculum and teach what they needed? I can’t see failing 60%.

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    • I decided I would go along with C&I to be a team player…bad decision, So, after a month or so I decided to toss much of the district defined curriculum and simply focus on linear relationships (expressions and equations) and systems of linear equations. The district allocated 15 days for unit 1; I took three times as long before I moved on and I did not cover everything in the unit, such as inequalities. Unit 2 included systems of linear equations and inequalities, exponential functions, arithmetic and geometric sequences (explicit and recursive notation), symmetry, and others. I only covered systems of linear equations.

      I’m not surprised by the percentage failing per se (although F’s were just under 45%, not 60%), as too many students were pushed through algebra 1 in the 8th grade without having developed a solid enough understanding of arithmetic or pre-algebra. My mistake was not investing the two months needed BEFORE engaging with graphing linear equations. Even then, I suspect close to 50% would receive a D or an F, based on prior years cohorts with similar skills.

      I plan to allow any student to retake the semester 1 final during second semester and I will change their grade accordingly. I’m going to have Chromebooks and use Khan Academy hopefully allowing me to differentiate among the different levels much better, too.

      Coffee sounds good. Let’s do Philz again. Let’s coordinate via email.

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  2. Dave your senior ( experience and age only) says:

    Dave, though we have only met in the cloud, I feel your pain. You hit the nail on the head and I thank the Lord that I will be retiring this June or next. Check out an article by Kristy S. Cooper in the American Educational Research Journal. It talks about something called connective instruction. I have just read a synopsis and maybe the statistical research behind it isn’t perfect but the point that students, especially those from traditionally lower academic achieving environments, require a strong connection between the subject matter and their lives is key. By their lives i mean what is important to them to make them successful ion their eyes in the short term ( say 1 -3 years max ). Whether it be status, college admission, a better job, and so forth. What you are teaching them is less important than that you are teaching them, and of course that they are learning something useful, both in your mind and theirs. Until these clowns forcing an inappropriate curriculum down your throat realize this, you will be driven nuts and frustrated and your students will fail by any standard.

    Now of couse what to do is a lot more difficult.

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  3. Jim says:

    If it’s at all institutionally possible you need to adapt your teaching to the reality of your students and what is best for them and ignore official policy that is unrealistic for your students. But if the institutional structure in which you work makes that impossible you may need to consider looking for another job or you will destroy yourself. I suspect that your personality is not very well suited for a “trench job”. A “trench job” is where you simply carry out whatever idiotic instructions you are given and without any sense of making progress toward an objective or even knowing what the objective is, like a private in the trenches of World War I.

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  4. Pingback: Why I Teach Redux | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

  5. CA Maestra says:

    I just found your blog today, and I’ve spent way too much time reading it when I should be working. But oh it rings so true… so painfully true.

    I’m saddened to see your struggles, but at the same time, I have to admit that it’s a relief to read them, because it’s been validation that yes, this is truly a difficult job. I’ve always been frustrated by the stereotype of teaching as a profession that draws the lowest common denominator, and that people go into it because it’s an easy job with summers off. So to have someone with your career background make the transition into teaching and write then frankly about the struggles you’ve encountered makes me feel a lot better about my own professional experience.

    I’ve always been a very driven person–honors/AP student in high school, then worked full-time through college to pay for school and still finished in less than four years with an English degree. I went straight into the credential program, and subsequently took a position teaching at a rural Title I high school, where I not only taught English, but also was the activities director in what turned out to be a very politically-fraught position (long story involving bad blood between the school board and teachers’ union, and the board rejected the person they’d originally hired for the job, specifically to spite the union president.)

    I had three preps my first year and four my second year, while teaching English, acting as the activities director, starting and running the AVID program, and assistant coaching track. Oh, and BTSA. I was crazy, but I enjoyed the challenges and enjoyed seeing my students’ abilities expand.

    But after six years, I left the classroom and took a 20% pay cut to accept a position at an independent study charter school. My current school is also a Title I school, geared toward severely at-risk students–the behavior and truancy problems teachers would rather not have in their classrooms because of the sheer amount of time and energy it takes to deal with these students’ needs.

    I love my job. I love knowing that I’m helping the students who fell through the cracks in a traditional classroom setting, and I love that I wear a lot of other hats besides “teacher”–I fill a number of different roles here that allow me to have an impact on all of our students, enable me to support other teachers to better serve their students, and that ultimately strengthen our organization as a whole. I know that I’m excellent at what I do, and I always look for ways to get better at it. It helps that I have an excellent administration who does their best to minimize the hoop-jumping that teachers are required to do, and who we know has our backs and looks out for us.

    Even with all this, though, I miss the classroom. I miss the discussions, and the energy, and the group dynamic. I left because I never felt that I could be enough, and after six years, I couldn’t figure out a way to balance my career and my personal life. The tipping point for me was a first semester grade distribution in my core “college prep” freshmen English classes that resembled the one in your Algebra class. I was called into the principal’s office, asked to explain the grades, and told that that was unacceptable. I had copious amounts of data, documentation about what I’d done to help students raise their grades, and a plan with two different methods by which students could demonstrate basic proficiency in the first semester skills. It didn’t matter–it was still unacceptable.

    I just couldn’t do it anymore, and left at the end of the year. It just wasn’t worth the fatigue and sleepless nights and the feeling that no matter what I did, I couldn’t give the kids what they needed. It was never enough, and after a while, I felt that I just wasn’t enough.

    I still struggle with balancing my job and my life, and I still struggle with feeling like I can’t reach every student in the way that they need. But at least I’m in a school with an administration that recognizes that students come to us with severe gaps that need to be addressed before jumping into a one-size-fits-no-one curriculum, and we have the flexibility and resources to do so to a far greater extent than I ever did at my previous school.

    So thank you for taking the time to blog–it’s incredibly validating to hear from someone who spent years outside the profession that we aren’t just a bunch of lazy whiners in it for all of the time we supposedly get off.

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    • It is unfortunate that the status quo in teaching is one where many teachers like yourself (and myself) feel so overwhelmed that we either leave the profession or change our circumstances for the better by making concessions we would prefer not to make…

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