Growing as a teacher

I got a lot of positive feedback from my growth mindset as a teacher post, and it inspired me to write another post about an organization that is literally the reason I’m a teacher: MfA (@MathforAmerica).

When I was in grad school at SLC doing my first master’s degree in Child Development, I was doing some education-related work at AMNH and at the college’s Early Childhood Center. I thought I wanted to be in the world of “informal education” (like museums), but unfortunately, it was right in 2008/2009, and the market had just crashed, which meant that museum funding had dried up, and they weren’t hiring new people! I was doing an online search for “non-profit education” and MfA was one of the hits I discovered. I sent a link to my uncle because it seemed too good to be true: the fellows program would pay for my master’s in teaching at one of three prestigious universities as well as pay me a stipend while I was in training so I could afford my living expenses, then they would continue to pay me a stipend above-and-beyond my salary during my first four years of teaching. They would give me a new teacher mentor during my first two years in the classroom, and I was required to attend PD at least 10 times per year (originally, it was monthly, but then they made it more flexible).

Prior to finding this program, I hadn’t really considered being a classroom teacher before, but once I researched it more (and my uncle assured me that there was no catch – provided I was willing to teach math in the NYC public school system), I decided to apply for the program. I attended the meet and greet, took the Praxis Exams (barely getting high enough to get in), and I aced the interview, securing my position  in the 2009 Fellows cohort. We were the biggest cohort up to that time, with an initial 60 teachers at three universities, but there were only 23 of us at TC, where I went to school. We did two summer sessions, and I took many of my classes with the same 23 people because we were all taking many of the same courses. This meant an instant network of study-buddies and tutors. I’ll never forget the statistics course I took. My professor’s idea of teaching was to read aloud from the textbook and assign practice problems for HW (having never modeled how to solve them in class!), and I felt so confused. I asked him once why he couldn’t just assign us the reading for HW and go over how to do the practice problems in class, and he told me that he couldn’t rely on us to read if we were assigned that for HW! I felt insulted (as I already had completed a bachelor’s and a master’s degree for which I had to read extensively!), and I felt like I needed to see the methods he expected us to use on solving the problems for the exams. I immediately enlisted two of my fellow MfAers, who willingly met with me to go over homework problems and literally taught me all of the statistics I learned that semester. The immediate availability of people who I already knew in my classes was a big part of what got me through my more challenging content – I didn’t have to build new relationships with strangers (though I often did!) because I had people who I had an immediate link with. I earned all A’s and B’s, which is a higher average than the grades I got in my undergrad math classes (one A, many B’s, and a few C’s!), but I didn’t have a network of study buddies!

 

Anyway, after we graduated, there was a hiring freeze in NYC, and some of us had a very difficult time finding a job – I went to interviews in CT & NJ, though ultimately, I got two job offers in NYC from new schools who could hire me (I had one school that WANTED to hire me, but couldn’t because of the freeze!). The school that I wound up at was a new small school starting on the fourth floor of another middle school. The principal had some ideals that I agreed with, but his implementation was not great. I didn’t feel supported, and I didn’t know how to accomplish all the things I’d hoped for in grad school when I’d decided to become a teacher. There were many days I thought about quitting or leaving, and I wasn’t sure I was cut out for teaching. However, my fellowship would require me to pay them back for my degree if I didn’t complete four years of teaching, and if I left teaching, I wouldn’t have a source of income, so that compelled me to stay in the classroom. However, the monthly PDs that I attended (and the support network I had from MfA – everyone from Amy who mentored me, to my new teacher mentors, to the other first year teachers in my cohort) gave me such hope that it was possible I could improve and that it wasn’t me “doing it wrong” but that rather, (perhaps in part because of how we throw teachers in without adequate training), these feelings I was having were normal and typical among first year teachers. I definitely wouldn’t describe my first year of teaching as a successful year, but I definitely learned and grew a lot.

My second year, I transferred schools (as did many of my colleagues in MfA), and I found a school that was a much better placement for me. There were more teachers to turn to for advice (in part because it was a bigger school), and I found it to be more supportive at the time. I invited people into my classroom to observe me, give me feedback, and support me in continuing to grow. I started attending more and more monthly MfA PDs, to the point where I eventually got sent an email telling me I’d signed up for too many and I needed to unregister! I’m half-convinced that I’m part of the reason they came up with their current policy about the maximum registrations for different types of courses that they now have! The great thing about the way MfA works is that there are teachers at all different levels attending PDs together – so the Master Teachers (and sometimes “guest” instructors) would lead the PDs that the Fellows, Early Career Fellows (a program developed later), and other Master Teachers. So there would be people with all levels of experience to collaborate together.

By the end of year three, I knew I was in for the long-game, and that I had a support network that would get me through it. Somewhere in here, I started reading blogs, but not posting significantly. I started this blog and one other (on wander-notlost.blogspot.com) that I posted on once or twice before losing interest, forgetting to post, or not setting aside time to do it regularly. It would pop into my head, so I would suddenly, randomly, decide to make a blog post. And there didn’t seem to be much interaction, so after one or two posts, I would stop blogging for several months to a year. But I kept reading – and I discovered awesome things like Dan Meyer’s 3-Act Math, Fawn Nguyen’s Visual Patterns, and more. Over the years, I kept seeing more things: I saw Estimation 180, I heard about Desmos, and I discovered the Which One Doesn’t Belong. In 2013, I took Jo Boaler’s online course, How to Learn Math, and I followed her website, youcubed.org, from the moment it began.

And slowly, I morphed from a teacher that had no idea how to engage students (and would resort to yelling) into a teacher who constantly engages students, never yells, and often gets told by parents that I’m their child’s favorite teacher and the first one to make math come alive for them (which of course, is the most rewarding part!).

During my fourth year teaching, it was time to “upgrade” my MfA fellowship and become a Master Teacher. I successfully completed the application, and was accepted into the 2014 Master Teacher Cohort. In addition to attending more PDs, I had the opportunity to host some student teachers, which I found developed my own teaching in some ways as much as it did my student teachers. As I was mentoring them, I realized how much more explicit I had to be about my expectations, and they would ask clarifying questions (many more than my students did!), so they drove my own growth.

Outside of just MfA, I’ve also attended a ton of PD, and while some of it has definitely been miss (the algebra one I attended earlier this summer, for example!), most of it has been amazing and inspiring and filled in some need I had in my own mind about a math topic or pedagogical skill. I’ve often said I wouldn’t be in teaching without MfA – literally, as they both paid for my degree to become a teacher (my undergrad major was NOT for teaching) and supported me through the early rough years where 50% of new teachers leave the classroom. Plus, I always feel valued – when I say to MfA, “here’s the topic I want a PD on” – they always seem to make it happen! I can’t imagine my teaching career without being an MfA Fellow and Master Teacher. I’ve wondered sometimes how people who are NOT in MfA keep up the stamina and stay in teaching.

As I’m just now beginning to get connected to the #MTBoS community on twitter, and I attended the mini-TMC in NYC this summer, I’m beginning to broaden my scope of what a professional network means. I’ve had people retweet my posts from the UK and Australia, I’ve had one of my post shared at a PD in CA, and I’ve even met people from all over the east coast (down to Delaware and up to MA), and perhaps even beyond that (but I’m not cognizant of it all yet). I am amazed at how easily I was able to tweet with the author, Pam Harris, and get responses from her about my questions for implementing number strings this year (and offer advice to her about deploying CMP 3 this year!). I realize now that the main thing that teachers need in order to keep teaching is a professional support network that helps you continue to learn and grow throughout your career, and it seems like the #MTBoS is another way to get that.

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