Trapped in an Echo Chamber

Student outcomes in honors precalculus first semester significantly exceeded those from last year while my AP Calculus AB cohort is on track, once again, to blow out the national average pass rate on the AP Exam.  Yet, my reputation continues to be maligned within select parent cliques in my school’s extended community.  Ironically, within these circles, my ability to improve students’ mathematical proficiency, and understanding, seems to matter less than perceptions of me.  I say this as a collection of anecdotes and factoids, interspersed among select facts, continues to circulate well past the expiry date of any truth and its associated resolutions.

While I have a contributing role in the events leading to this situation, and in hindsight could have done several things better, my past and ongoing adjustments, accommodations, supports, and outreach efforts unfortunately fail to quell the spread of my maligned reputation.  Like a wildfire roaring up the windward side of a mountain draw, my name sets off a frenzy of fear.  In fact, a few parents of middle school students with two to three years to go before they could possibly take honors precalculus recently expressed dissatisfaction that their child would be required to take my course if they wished to take AP Calculus BC.

Stunned, pained, and saddened by the unfortunate turn of events this past semester in honors precalculus, I continue to teach the course to the utmost of my ability.  In so doing, I recall that last year’s honors precalculus teacher left our school after suffering a similar treatment for two years.  In fact, in hindsight, I recall their emotionally devastated state after the first semester.  Unfortunately, in my depleted state teaching two courses per section, I did not have the energy, or time, to check in with my coworker as to the reasons for the parental disdain.  Naively, I even volunteered to teach the honors precalculus course this year, excited for the opportunity.

For whatever reason, it is as if my school’s community must have a scapegoat for the travails of their children as the youngest of them experience true setbacks for the first time in their lives.  Buttressing this belief, parents in my home neighborhood hold startlingly similar views towards our neighborhood high school’s honors precalculus teacher, and other teachers throughout the school; this school ranks quite high in the nation academically.

In both schools, it is primarily the social elite who harbor these beliefs.  Yet, they are very vocal and spread their perceptions to those who will listen irrespective of the validity of the information they share.  Admittedly, it is difficult to determine fact from fiction when it comes to complex social experiences, especially when there are snippets of truth sown in the perceptions.  Nonetheless, I believe these misguided attempts create more harm than good as they are only one side of the story, often distorted through the lens of overstressed students.  Ironically, parents are frequently the source of the immense pressure children feel as parents expect their children to achieve at the highest levels in nearly every subject often while juggling sports and other extracurricular activities.  Students often struggle to meet the expectations of their parents.  Yet, it is easier for both the child and the parent to blame someone else, such as a teacher, especially if the teacher deviates in the slightest from what students experienced in prior coursework.

As such, parents of younger high school students may need to consider that not all sophomores may be emotionally ready for the rigor of an honors precalculus course, especially those whose sole experience in mathematics consists of “memorize and repeat.” Also, in my course, for more than a few students, their level of prerequisite skill and understanding fell far below that needed to succeed in the course.

While I taught an accelerated algebra 1 course to rising freshman this past summer with similar rigor, and an emphasis on problem solving and reasoning, the smaller class size, coupled with the lengthy five hour days we spent learning together, may have helped these younger students cope with the demands.  And unlike my honors precalculus students, these students could drop the course if they felt unable to keep up.  Lastly, as the students came from three different middle schools, their parents were unlikely to have the opportunity to compare notes about their child’s struggles in the course in such a fashion to convince themselves their children’s struggles were not with the course content, its accelerated nature, or the increased rigor emphasized in the mathematics practices of Common Core.

Unfortunately, with close to 100 students initially this fall semester, spread over three courses, and three grade levels (sophomore, junior, and senior), I was unable to manage their difficulties with the increased rigor of the content and mathematical practices, or more specifically, their perceptions thereof.

Notwithstanding the ongoing emotional distress I feel, I continue to hold students to high expectations with content standards and mathematical practices, such as problem solving and reasoning, as well as procedural fluency.  I believe nearly every student, if they remain engaged in this honors precalculus course, will learn more mathematics, more deeply, and more meaningfully than they likely ever envisioned possible.

At the same time, I am not immune to a system’s need to remain at equilibrium.  My present challenge emanates from this natural phenomenon.

Nonetheless, I hope to elevate the systemic equilibrium state in honors precalculus much as I accomplished with AP Calculus AB, where the AP Exam pass rate before I arrived hovered at 30% and students were ill-prepared for the rigor of AP Calculus; last year, the AP Exam rate broke 82%.  While varying my multi-pronged pedagogical approach with supports galore, it took three years to arrive at a place recognizable to parents and students alike as worthy of the effort of all parties.  I suspect a similar period may be necessary in honors precalculus although a shorter period would be best for all.

In closing, for those that follow my blog, or know me, I am a second-career mathematics teacher on fire to teach our nation’s students, from any and all socioeconomic stations.

With over 25 years in high-tech, mostly in the wireless and GPS industries, my technical and business experience provides me with a solid foundation of content knowledge and skill with innumerable applications of mathematics to share with students.  My passion for teaching, and my pedagogical methods, increased considerably while I obtained my teaching credential and masters at one of our nation’s finest universities.  Its emphasis on social justice, equity, and access to an outstanding education for all aligned well with my desire to teach.  Their progressive philosophies rounded out the sharp corners in much of my highly traditional views and experiences with education, especially in mathematics.

My desire to teach is so strong, I left a lucrative career behind, took on over $50,000 in debt in student loans, and committed myself to learning as much as I could about teaching, which is an amazingly vast and complex field.  In short, teaching was not a low-risk, low-cost, retire in place position for me.

At the same time, I likely would not have selected this new career had I known the enormity of the challenges placed upon teachers from so many directions and sources.  Similar to the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back, if the pressures these parents generate in their social echo chambers continues to be directed towards me, I am not sure if I will be capable of sustaining my motivation, drive, and passion.  There is only so much negativity one can sustain in public service where the financial paybacks are small, the financial sacrifices are great, and the time we have on this planet is limited.


About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, 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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9 Responses to Trapped in an Echo Chamber

  1. kentilton says:

    Wow, yours is truly a fascinating story, as I may have said before. It is great having a voice that knows both sides of the fence, at a time when “educational reform” is a code phrase for “we have to get rid of all these lazy, no good teachers”.

    Your story also helps me understand something that astonished me thirty years ago when, having become a teacher, i went back to visit a couple of teachers in my high school and they told me things I could not believe about how parent pressure had forced them to lower their standards. I thought tenure protected them! Ha!

    Sure, a lot of teachers could be better, but most are quite solid and as you well know any really good teacher can make a lot more money doing something else, because a really good teacher is an exceptional performer.

    Reformer wannabes need to go to school on this: Society, your schools are you. Parents, your child’s performance is you. Students, your learning is you.

    ps. Congrats on those pass rates! 🙂


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

    Maybe you can let the prospective students have an idea of the rigor and the benefits of your approach the previous term or maybe have some sort of entrance assessment. I assume the admin has your back otherwise they wouldn’t give you the assignment. G bless you. i have dumbed down so much I am now dumb and dumber. Losing energy as I am retiring soon.


    • Sorry to hear how much you’ve needed to lower the bar. I refuse. I’ll return to high-tech before I compromise on content or process standards. I’ll just work harder to persuade students why it is better to keep the bar high…or die trying. 😦


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