When Life Gives You Lemons…

A little over two weeks ago, I resigned from a new position as an upper level mathematics teacher at a parochial high school barely three weeks into the new academic year. In some ways, I was heartbroken; I am still saddened by my decision even though it was necessary for reasons which I will detail in time. I truly believed I had found an institution where I could advance students’ mathematical proficiency in a significant manner. [1]

Unfortunately, many of my students were not receptive to my pedagogy, which differed significantly from most, if not all, of their prior learning experiences in that it is highly situational as well as very student- and discourse-centric, what one might describe as a variant of the Socratic Method. This article describes the Socratic Method’s successful use by high school math teachers as well as this article offered from a home-schooling perspective.

In hindsight I should have known better regarding my chance of success with my pedagogy, even if I believed that one of the key reasons I was hired by this institution was for me to employ pedagogical approaches that lead students to deeper, more meaningful learning. However, my desire to spread what I believed to be an amazing gospel blinded me to the difficulties I experienced as an AP Calculus AB teacher in a public high school. I permitted my repeated successes and laudatory student feedback over this time to convince me that the heart of my teaching philosophy, and method, held great hope to energize, to enlighten, and to enable students of mathematics to succeed in ways that far exceed what direct instruction alone provides in spite of the intense resistance I experienced, repeatedly over the years. [2] However, the shock my pedagogy presented to students steeped primarily in direct instruction significantly impeded their acceptance.

I do not blame students for their initial resistance either; it is a natural reaction, which I understand and accept. As such, I actively and repeatedly employed a set of initiatives to address student, and parent, reluctance early on while establishing my role as a new upper level mathematics teacher of AP Calculus AB and precalculus honors. My efforts were insufficient for a variety of reasons to include active student rejection of my pedagogy as well as students conflating my pedagogy with classroom management. [3], [4]

I do place a degree of shared responsibility on a certain strata of society, comprised primarily of well-educated, affluent members of my generation, and those somewhat younger. These parents, through well-intentioned, but misguided, efforts to protect their children from harm, perceived or real, pursued retribution for perceived wrongs prior to contacting me to understand if the act(s) relayed by their child were, in fact, wrong, much less harmful. Unfortunately, what constitutes harm to one’s sense of self, ego, or how one feels varies considerably, especially as we evolve as a society addressing truly abhorrent behavior inflicted on others, both past and present. Ironically, I bring to my classrooms much of what a parent who wishes their child to develop the fullest in mathematical proficiency could possibly imagine, as parents both recent and further back in time have written to me. [5]

I end this post with an amusing graphic, which as an electrical engineer, former Cub Scout den leader and Cubmaster, made me smile.


[1] I will expound upon the phrase “mathematical proficiency” in subsequent posts. I’ve narrowly used it as defined by the National Research Council. I will explore other definitions or descriptions as well.

[2] My use of the phrase “direct instruction” is likely overly broad. I will refine my descriptors further in time. My use here encompasses what I consider to be a “show and tell” type of teaching method where a mathematics teacher shows students new mathematical content, typically a procedure, using one or more examples of increasing complexity while telling students aspects of the teacher’s writings. This may involve what are described as “I Do,” “We Do,” and “You Do” phases where primarily teacher led learning occurs in whole-class, pair share, small group, or individual student settings.

[3] Nonetheless, progress requires overcoming initial objections. When I encountered resistance my first year as a calculus teacher at a public high school, a savvy, experienced, and pedagogy-aware principal stepped in to shepherd a compromised path forward. At the parochial school, the equivalently skilled principal who hired me retired before the new academic year commenced.

When I experienced crushing pressure from parents of my three sections of honors precalculus in 2014, I reached out through a parent intermediary to meet with parents to hear their concerns, to share the rationale behind my pedagogy, and to secure their much needed support. My opportunity to do so recently never had a chance to materialize as I was painted into a corner by school administrators.

[4] As a former technology professional, skilled in product (and service) marketing, as well as business strategy, I know well what went wrong with my “service launch” / “market entry” efforts. I plan to share my hard-earned learnings from my experiences in this arena in the hopes that others who seek to teach similarly may have a better chance to succeed where I failed.

For reasons which I will elaborate in later posts, I failed to employ the insights I possessed effectively. With my ‘unpaid sabbatical,” otherwise known as a career-break as I use that phrase in a “tongue-in-cheek manner,” I plan to detail what went wrong, what is required for success by others, and other perspectives where I distill my experiences as a mathematics teacher steeped in the methods, knowledge, and research learned while earning my MA in Education in the Teaching of Mathematics while at Stanford University.

Note that what I learned in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) infused my prior understanding of mathematics, which began in 1969 when I first entered preschool or kindergarten; I am unable to recall which as of this writing. At that point in time, remnants of our nation’s foray, spawned post-Sputnik, into improving mathematics and science curriculum and instruction lingered.

Looking back nearly fifty years ago to the start of my formal education in mathematics, amongst other subjects, I recall learning about the following aspects of mathematics: it’s universe as established by various definitions, theorems, axioms, and corollaries; it’s usage via a multitude of algorithms, procedures, or techniques; it’s diversity of representative forms to include numeric, graphical, pictorial, verbal, and algebraic; and it’s range of applications in the natural- and social sciences.

[4] Yet, the benefit of the doubt or a fair and balanced inquiry rarely is extended to “new” teachers, even experienced, successful second-career teachers. Instead, parents serve to amplify, and to confirm, student perceptions to one or more administrators. And confirmation bias, among other difficulties inherent in the role, as well as other confounding factors present in any dynamic, social environment, may convince administrators that there is no need to dig further to understand what appears a foregone conclusion.

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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