I’m in my sixth year of coaching and leading a 6-12 math department in rural WV. My work’s umbrella is broad but at its core is the task of shifting the paradigm of teaching and learning math. I have modeled and mentored, led a variety of week-long in-services to train teachers in content and pedagogy, immersed myself in new standards, and am seeing the beginnings of a fresh vision of what a math department can look like. Teachers are collaborating and peer-reviewing, designing lessons and department-wide structures for deepening student engagement with mathematics. As successes grow in spirit and test scores, I am witnessing the transformation of a teaching culture.
The introduction of new standards gave us, as educators, both the responsibility and the license to become learners. It gives us this little break from the burden of being professional ‘know-it-alls’, and calls on each of us to learn something new, and to do it together. This responsibility and license applies to each of us stakeholders in the education landscape. Now is a crucial time to root our work in what we have to learn from the work of one another.
We’ve been given a clear, collective opportunity to say it’s important that kids do math, with the math practice standards as a common anchor for our definition of what “doing math” means. We need to grapple with complex problems, and stick with solving them. We need understand and use multiple approaches. We must be able to apply what we know, communicate effectively, be deep listeners and laser-like critiquers of all outcomes and conclusions – even our own. These practice standards obviously redefine doing math for students. In my work, I suggest that they might also redefine the work of educators, teacher leaders and even researchers. We are shifting the culture, the paradigm of what an effective math classroom looks like – away from repetition for mastery of a skill set and towards a more responsive, engaging, connected space to build ownership of big ideas, the confidence and agility to apply them, the eloquence to explain them. This is serious work, and it will never happen on a national scale if we all stay in our teaching boxes.
While it may be necessary, it is not interesting that a teacher can solve the math problems she poses to students. Likewise, as a teacher leader, though necessary, it is not interesting that I have been effective in the classroom. Today’s effective coaching can not be a script for how to teach, just like today’s effective teacher can’t have a script for how do math. Effective coaching mirrors effective teaching. It is complex, differentiated and requires a nuanced dance of grappling with problems, persevering, trying and evaluating new approaches, communicating effectively and assessing for growth in a personal and positive way.
In order to maximize effectiveness as an educator, we must first have a respectful, nurturing, safe environment in which to learn. Really doing math is dependent on being wrong often – then delving into an analysis of why. This is a major paradigm shift from most teachers’ constructs of what ‘best’ math teaching looks like. It is messy. There is discomfort. It makes you twitch in your seat. It requires that we let students grapple, let them learn to move through unknowing towards trying and into figuring things out. This happens, in part, by letting them have the supportive space to do so and putting the reigns on our instinct to do the math for them. A parallel paradigm shift needs to happen in the worlds of teacher training and support. When presented with problems, teachers need a community in which to be a bit messy – to try out ideas, both mathematical and pedagogical, to test and revise them, to learn from being wrong, and to grow with collective challenge, support and input.
If I am to be a successful math coach, I need to create opportunity and impetus for teachers to engage in practice that mirrors what they will ask of their students. As a coach, the ‘definition’ of ‘good teaching’ is incredibly complex, yet it is my strong instinct that (1) good teaching and learning require collaborative, respectful spaces, and (2) there are ways to think deeply about, and act upon, how to support teachers to grow in the direction of successfully turning more of the math over to kids.
Removing imposed scaffolding, scripts and universal answers-for-all needs to happen at all levels of math education. I’m excited to be part of conversations that will lead teachers to ground their work in creating the right spaces for students to engage in math, while listening carefully to what students know and need, and likewise one that will ask teacher leaders and researchers to ground their work in creating the right spaces for teachers to engage with this art, while paying close mind to what they know and need to grow.
Shout-Outs: I initially articulated these thoughts upon invitation from Kirk Walters and his AIR team in response to a study I was super inspired by. I’ve been so fortunate to continue this conversation in the extraordinary company of teachers in the Better Math Teaching Network. I’m grateful for these opportunities to wonder and tinker with an excellent and diverse crew of thinkers. Further, I’ve been *meaning* to start a blog for about 8 years now. I’m so grateful for the recent nudge by Kate Nowak, whose IM curricular work should be the buzz of all middle school math leaders right now and Pamela Rawson, who inspires me each time I’m with the Better Math folks. Big Thanks!