Uplifting “Thank You Note” from an AP Calc Student

One day after this fall semester concluded, I shared on my personal Facebook account an email I received from one of my AP Calculus AB students along with commentary about my thoughts to leave teaching as my challenges this semester weighed heavily upon me.  Within hours, I received an outpouring of support encouraging me to remain a teacher, many comments coming from my USMA classmates who now teach.

I’m definitely going to finish the year out, and I likely will continue teaching.  However, I need to revisit my purpose for teaching, and perhaps how I actually teach as they may not be as aligned as needed.  I am wiped out teaching, semester after semester, and truthfully, day after day, without feeling a great sense of accomplishment or reward for doing so.

Sure, there is the fleeting sense of satisfaction provided by the occasional student letter, such as the one below.  However, my engineering roots leave me perpetually unsatisfied with my students’ outcomes.  Perhaps my dissatisfaction also originates in my idealistic tendencies, which I believe called me to teach.  Reality tends to dampen idealism if one’s expectations are too high.

Bottom line: I am out of balance and rapidly approaching terminal burn out.  I will not permit myself to reach the terminal state.  However, I am not quite sure what changes I need to make to arrest my rate of descent while maintaining what I believe is the necessary level of rigor and focus on developing my students abilities:

  • to think (beyond rote recall, and ideally, creatively),
  • to solve problems (beyond routine procedures, and ideally, abstractly), and
  • to understand as much of what they are asked to learn as possible (beyond a superficial level, and ideally, to a meaningful level).

I must figure this out this semester in order for me to continue in this field.

*************

My Facebook Post

Received the following email from one of my AP Calculus students in response to one I sent him letting him know he attained the 2nd highest score on the final exam.

Note his reference to my unusual style as a teacher. I employ what I learned at West Point in the early 1980s. It goes by the name of The Thayer Method at USMA. Coupled with online videos today, it is called The Flipped Classroom. Whatever you call it, I believe it leads to true learning and understanding, especially in mathematics. I cannot express the depth of the emotional stress teaching this way has caused me, especially this semester as I teach a new honors precalculus course this way and the parents of nearly half my students have complained to the admins and to me that my method is the reason their child is not performing at the same level (spelled “A”) as they have in all prior math classes. One set of parents, in particular, was almost the straw that broke the camels back as I am considering leaving teaching.

This student’s note helps me as I reflect on the past semester and my future as a teacher.

Dear Mr Math Teacher

Wow that’s fantastic. Honestly I was not expecting to do so well but I guess all the studying payed off.

You know I came into this year having had terrible experiences in math classes and I was expecting to hate it just as much as usual. But calculus is actually one of my favorite classes now. It’s hard, yeah, but it’s a challenge, and it’s really interesting material that makes sense in the real world. I mean I can see a million uses for a derivative this year and I think I hated math last year because I didn’t know how a trig identity could help me live.

I’m really sorry that so many of your students don’t appreciate you as a teacher. You do have a very unusual style but it works if we’re devoted to it. I just want to let you know I really appreciate what you do for us. You are one of my favorite teachers that I’ve had in a long time and I’ve never enjoyed learning math more.

I hope you and the family and ‘the outlaws’ have a wonderful holiday break.

I replied to his email as follows.

Thank you for taking the time to write this note. Most students are unable to appreciate my methods until they are in college and beyond. Regardless of whether you pursue a technical field in college or not, my goal is to develop a student’s ability to think, to reason, to persist, and to succeed in whatever they attempt.

Enjoy your break. We hit it hard when we return to class!

*************

Further Reflections

In one of my replies to a friend’s comment about the lack of emphasis on applications of mathematics in their learning, I stated the following.

With electrical engineering and finance degrees, I have applications galore for calculus. Unfortunately, in many cases I’ve experienced, the primary focus of students and parents alike is an “A” and everything else is a distant second. Trying to change that has caused me no amount of grief.

Teaching the upper level students in my school in my honors precalculus course, as opposed to those in my AP Calculus course, exposed me much more intensely to the tremendous pressures, felt by students and parents alike, for students to receive straight A’s on all of their coursework.  The perceived necessity to attain the impossible is especially high for honors or AP students as those courses permit even greater opportunities to distinguish oneself as a student of the highest academic potential.

From my perspective, it seems that the A grade is by far more important than any learning or skill developed in the course for most upper level students, much less understanding.  Worse, the A has become the expected grade.  Any deviation from an A grade, as indicated online, on an assignment by assignment basis no less, is cause for great alarm for most upper level students and their parents.

Furthermore, one would think that the two, grade and skill, are more than correlated.  Yet, it seems that that there is a tenuous connection between the two for a portion of students receiving A’s in their mathematics coursework; at least in the sense of succeeding in a subsequent course with minimal to no time in class devoted to prerequisite review.

Perhaps the decoupling of grade and skill is primarily due to the enormous pressures exerted by our educational system?  Specifically, does the scarcity of admissions offers from the most desired colleges and universities thrust students into a cutthroat trajectory?  Or, is the diversity of student abilities within a classroom coupled with increasing focus to close the achievement gap negatively impacting the development of true skill at the uppermost levels?

There are so many factors in play within such an immense system as public education that it is likely impossible to identify which are most apt to be managed for collectively desired outcomes.  Education is more idealism than realism in aspirations and more realism than idealism in outcomes.  How to balance idealism and realism confounds all today, at least in any widely applicable scale.

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Pedagogical Pickle

Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher:

I’m still wrestling with many of the questions I posed as a student teacher in this blog post from four plus years ago…

Originally posted on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher:

The options are many, the outcomes are uncertain, the needs are tremendous, and the urgency is high.  Are you with me?  If you follow my blog, and its purpose, perhaps.  If not, I speak of the current plight of secondary math education in the U.S.  As presently defined, the math competencies of our nation’s youth, on average, are falling off the proverbially cliff; they started on this downward trajectory a few decades ago – why exactly is not known, or if so, not widely shared.  Nothing has been able to slow its decline, and it is not clear if it is even possible, regardless of claims from both ends of the educational spectrum.

Conservative stalwarts to progressive reformers, public officials to private foundations, seasoned teachers to fresh-out Teach for America volunteers, all offer their laundry list of “do’s & don’ts” that will reverse the national slide.  However, none have shown…

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2014 Honors Precalculus Fall Semester Grade Distributions

My first fall semester teaching honors precalculus finished on an up note in stark contrast to the majority of the semester.  I was unprepared for the onslaught of student and parental anxieties related to the course, especially students’ progress grades and/or scores on various assessments.  The cumulative effect of their fears and frustrations weighed heavily upon me nearly crushing my spirit and desire to teach.  I cannot put those feelings into words quite yet.  I hope to do so soon.  In the meanwhile, I am posting a letter I emailed out to my 84 honors precalculus students after entering their final grades for the semester.

Email to Honors Precalculus Students

Final grades are posted.  Christmas* came early for most of you.  In the spirit of transparency, trust, and the holiday spirit of giving, I share data related to the course grades below for your review and understanding.

Happy Holidays!

Mr. Math Teacher aka Santa

* or any holiday celebration suitable to you and your family

BACKGROUND AND DATA

As you may see when you look at the online grade book portal, over 75% of you received a letter grade higher than the one determined by the grade book software; in those cases, if you compare the overall percentage for the semester with your assigned grade, you should see an upward bias.  No one received a lower grade than that determined by the grade book.

As I mentioned to your parents during Back to School Night, I do not allow the grade book to constrain the letter grade I assign to a student; it does set the floor, however.  Assigning the appropriate grade for a student is a challenging task as assessments are not “black & white” (e.g. deterministic) in nature, as the educational system wants you to believe.  When assigning your grade, I consider your performance in each grade category (assignments, quizzes, tests, and final) placing considerable emphasis on the final if it significantly exceeds other categories.  While there is a subjective element to assigning your course grade, it is based on data collected throughout the semester.

Everyone should feel that the grade they received reflects their understanding and performance in the course; in fact, for many, the grade assigned likely exceeds your understanding and performance.  However, as the rigor of this course surprised many of you, this is my way of making everyone whole from the experience.  I may not be so generous second semester as you have had more than adequate time to adjust to the pace and rigor of the course.

The following figure depicts the distribution of grades for all students in the course as well as by period.  In the first figure, Advanced represents an “A,” Proficient a “B,” etceteras.  All numeric values are based on a grade scale where an A+ is a 4.33, an A is a 4.0, an A- is a 3.67, a B+ is a 3.33, and so on.

2014-2015 HPC SEM1 Ratings

The following figure breaks down grades by the minus (“-“), regular, and plus (“+”) ratings.

2014-2015 HPC SEM1 Grades

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