Where am I again?

While I have not intended for this blog to be a place where I write in-depth about my day-to-day experiences in the classroom, I was asked elsewhere to put this piece together, and thought I would also share it here…

Somehow I have already reached halfway through my first term of teaching. I am not exactly sure how I got here – somewhere in between yard duties, differentiated homework sheets, ‘cool’ days of 35 degrees and 85 of my own students, the last 4 weeks have passed me by.  If you asked me two years ago whether I would consider teaching, the answer would have been a resounding “no”.  To my own surprise however, I am finding the first stages of this new course in my life rather exhilarating.

A typical day goes like this: at 7.40am I walk out the door, arriving at school approximately 12.5 minutes later.  By the time morning briefing takes place at 8.50am, I have done the photocopying for my first 3 classes, said “good morning” to the ladies in the library and picked up the cables from them that I use to connect my laptop to the projector in my classroom.  I have also taken my books, sheets, whiteboard markers, daily planner and a stash of other supplies to my classroom, rearranged the room if necessary and set up the board ready for session 1.

As I don’t have a homegroup, I have a few minutes to breathe and read the news online before my first class begins.  Year 9 maths.  These students always arrive on time, ready to learn.  I know that I can push this class, after having discovered early on that they like to be challenged.  During this class, I am also generally able to walk around the room and have a chat to each student, spending longer with those who have missed a class or are behind.

Forty-eight minutes later, Year 9s walk out and Year 10s begin to appear.  Session 2 is always lively, and I generally start the lesson with some funk music playing while the students get their equipment out and begin doing some basic skills practice or revision.  While many of the students in this class will be going on to the Senior College down the road next year, with some already having plans to go on to university, there are a number of students who have stated that they intend to leave school at the end of the year.  As such, amongst these students, there is less motivation to learn abstract mathematical concepts and a greater appreciation instead for tangible and applied maths.  I generally find that session 2 is over before I felt it’s started, and as the students rush out to recess I am left realising that I only made it around to talk to a third of the students.

With no time to spare, I drop my materials from the first two classes on my desk and pick up the next pile of work ready for session 3: Year 7 maths.  By some miracle, I ended up with this class. On my first day, I was shocked by their immediate silence and since then have gotten used to the enthusiastic participation of students in class discussions and comments such as, “Great, we’ve finally got homework!”  The class is not without its challenges though: standardised testing recently indicated that the ability range of students in the class is between Year 4 and Year 9.  Unfortunately, at the school I am at, this is the norm.

At 12.08pm the bell goes for the end of session 3.  There ends the morning rush of classes and starts the tidying, marking and planning – a continuum from one day to the next that I have gladly found myself in.


Encouraging critical thinking in Maths

Day 2 of multiplication with Year 7s. After completing two examples on the board, showing exactly how students should do their working out, I asked “Does this make sense? Is anyone confused about any of the steps I have done on the board here?” With nods and general silence I set the class to continuing their work – short and long multiplication questions.

At this stage of the lesson, I move away from the board and start walking in between the rows of students, stopping to check their work and see how they’re going.  By doing so, I get to know the students a little better, have a bit of a chat with them and take note of the pace of their work (are they at level with the rest of the class, doing challenge problems, or doing some more practice on the basics?).  Approaching one student, Lisa, I take a quick look at her work: she has left out the 0 at the start of the second line of working in about five long multiplication questions. Putting in this 0 is something I mentioned during last lesson and re-emphasised this lesson. So why did Lisa continue to miss this basic step?
As David Wetzel has noted in a recent article, “Encouraging students to use critical thinking is more than an extension activity in science and math lessons, it is the basis of true learning.”  Critical thinking moves students beyond passive learning to active learning. By having students watch me explain multiplication problems on the board, they are passively taking in what I am saying. While Lisa may have comprehended every step, she was not actively engaging with the problem. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that she went on to make mistakes.
A mentor of mine who happened to be watching that class, suggested that I try different methods for checking for understanding among the students. In particular, he noted that it could be useful to get students to articulate the meaning behind steps in the working out and the solution. So the next day I tried something different.  Instead of putting up a question and showing how the working should be done, I wrote up a couple of questions with their worked solutions, and each containing a mistake.  I asked students to have a think about these problems, then work in pairs and figure out exactly where I had gone wrong. As a final step, I got a few students to come up to the board and explain their solutions to the class. Rather than silence and blank stares, there was what I like to think of as “productive noise”.  Students busily working out the problems and asking one another questions.
What I’ve learned from this class, I will work to apply to others.  It’s easy to just ask, “Do you understand?”, but to get students more actively involved in their learning, higher level cognitive questioning is needed.

Teaching as a craft

It’s difficult to literally measure how much impact a teacher can have on students; that’s the problem with social research – where does the impact of a teacher end, and the impact of something else (such as parents, the media) begin?  I would argue, given how much time students spend at school, a teacher can potentially make an enormous impact.
I see a key role for teachers to be in preparing their students to live as functioning members of society. (A functioning member of society to me, would include, being able to maintain employment, hold strong relationships and stay out of the criminal justice system). While some onus does rest on the teacher, they do not have sole responsibility for the product of the student that emerges.  This is something that I am telling my students this year.  In a letter home to students and their parents I state, “The power in the learning belongs to you, but it is my job to structure the education so that learning can place” (my thanks to another teacher, JR, from whom I have borrowed these words).
Indeed, the world of knowledge and skills that lies in front of young people is infinite.  The teacher as expert must filter this into  tangible and appropriate classroom lessons.  In this way, the teacher has a huge amount of responsibility.  As a maths teacher, given the choice, I could potentially just focus on those skills that I know could be practically applied in an obviously useful way, ignoring the more theoretical or abstract topics (e.g. consumer maths vs. algebra).  Similarly, as a Humanities teacher, I could choose to present historical events from only one perspective, or even purposefully omit to teach certain events at all.
This is the power and the difficulty of teaching: you are able to funnel in certain information to the developing mind of the student. But in this position of awareness, it is also evident that there is so much to learn and only so many hours in the day.  Earlier this week, I sat with the Principal of my school and discussed this issue.  He drew for me the diagram below in order to emphasise ‘we will never be able to teach everything’; within the realm of knowledge that exists (or that we know exists), only a very small portion can ever be communicated in the school. Accordingly, the teacher must decide what is worthy of being taught, and in doing so must artfully employ concepts and skills that will best prepare the student for future learning and challenges in life.