He’s an inspirational colleague with a background in special education at the elementary and middle school level. We were talking about the intersection of content knowledge and instructional practices. He said, “My ability to teach math has always been limited by my lack of content knowledge beyond middle school.” After pondering a beat, I replied, “Me too.” Knowing my teaching experience, he leaned back with a skeptical smirk and looked askance at me. I continued.
“Look, you know I taught high school math for 12 years from remedial algebra through AP Calculus. But over the past few years, I’ve learned so much from colleagues like you who are passionate about teaching elementary math. Experiences at conferences like this have shown me that my ability to teach that content was limited by my lack of knowledge of elementary and middle school math content and the effective instructional practices teachers like you use. My work with elementary and middle school teachers and as a curriculum author has shown me how much I have to learn…and, distressingly, how long ago I should’ve learned it. I would’ve been a much better teacher.”
In my humble opinion, that’s why we need more elementary teachers to share their wisdom at places like Twitter Math Camp and other conferences. And why secondary teachers need to bust out of their silo. There is so much learning to be had when we think more deeply about simple ideas.”
The conversation moved forward from there, but the significance of this exchange has stuck with me. More on this after a quick tangent to contextualize.
Self Reflection (Part 1)
As a young high school teacher early in my career, I spent significant time in my colleagues’ classrooms during my prep periods. I watched other math teachers. I geeked out with physics students in their class. I sat in on English classes to check out the ELA side of things. I’d grade tests in the back of their rooms or write lesson plans when things were busy. I wanted to steal their wisdoms, their practices, their approaches and make them my own. This made me a better math teacher. I learned classroom management skills. I was able to make connections between other content areas and my own math classes and use those connections to help contextualize the math content in my lessons. I learned how to foster a culture of trust and and build relationships in the classroom. I also saw some terrible teaching…and that helped me learn to forgive myself for those many many times when I delivered a terrible math lesson.
But working at the high school level, I never stepped foot in an elementary school classroom. It wasn’t until my 10th year that I ever stepped foot in a middle school classroom. If you had asked me during those early years to branch out and watch teachers in the early and middle grades perform their craft, I would’ve masked my terror of young children with my own professional arrogance. “Their professional struggles are not my professional struggles. Their content is so simple. What do I have to learn from watching them teach it?”
In other words, as a young teacher, I was precocious and earnest, but I was also foolishly blind to the narrowness of my scope of knowledge. And my professional development was hindered for many years. And so was the learning development of my students.
Math Teaching and the Blame Game
There is an unhealthy and debilitating systemic dynamic in math education where the work and struggles of secondary teachers are “above” the work and struggles of middle school teachers, and the struggles of elementary school teachers are “beneath” everyone because that’s where you teach when you’re “bad at math.” Not only do we work in isolation as teachers separated by barriers of school buildings and classroom walls and also subject matter and grade level, but there is a hierarchical structure where the top looks down on the bottom. And it sucks.
Let me be very clear: I don’t believe that the dynamic is valid; I’m only offering that it exists in our profession and the quality of all of our work (and the learning of all of our students) suffers from it.
Have you or your colleagues ever said or heard this? “If the elementary (or middle) school teachers would teach their content better, I would be able to teach my grade level content.” If I was your colleague, you would’ve heard me say it in frustration from time to time.
But that’s not a productive professional belief. And I don’t mean to single out upper level teachers. I think this blame game goes from the cradle to college. Kindergarten teachers lament parents who don’t teach math to their young children. Early elementary teachers blame Kindergarten teachers. Middle school teachers blame 4th and 5th grade teachers. High school teachers blame middle school teachers. College professors blame all of us.
We operate in a system that allows for a continuous chain of “pass the blame.” No wonder many elementary teachers might not feel welcomed to the conversation at places like Twitter Math Camp, #MTBoS, and the like.
Self Reflection (Part 2)
In most of my classroom career, I did not know how to review and conceptually teach integer operations. I didn’t know how to represent problems with physical counters or visual models. I didn’t know how to use ANY manipulatives or visual models effectively in the classroom. When it came to reviewing “the basics” like integer operations, I focused only on the abstract structure and algorithms and mnemonics that might have been mathematically accurate, but failed to instill a lasting mathematical understanding for my students. Same too for operations on fractions. And proportional reasoning. And solving basic algebraic equations. And the Pythagorean Theorem. And even the area model of multiplication…I taught Algebra 2 for EIGHT(!!!) years before I started to employ the area model for multiplying polynomials. (Newsflash: It works!)
These were skills that students just needed to know by now. And that’s true. They did need to know it. But I also lied to myself (and my students) by saying that I didn’t have time in class to teach them beyond “Here’s the algorithm. Memorize it.” The truth was that I didn’t have time NOT to teach it. And I didn’t know how to teach it any other way. Because I was an arrogant high school teacher and it was easier for me to participate in the blame game and let myself off the hook.
That’s why my conversation with my friend over a beer is still with me almost six weeks after it happened at TMC. We had the same struggle: Our teaching suffered because we couldn’t see beyond the content that we teach. I think this struggle is all too clear to elementary teachers like my friend. I just wish more secondary teachers started seeing it the same way as I do. (College professors too for that matter.) We also need to see beyond middle school math and explore what is learned and how it is taught in the earlier grades.
Why This Matters…
…because our students deserve better. And we have an obligation to meet their needs as best we can. All teachers at all levels need to understand more the progressions of math content and skills, to deepen our awarenesses of how the math practices are used to structure instruction and lesson design, and to witness instructions in math classes beyond (before and after) our grade level.
To do this, we need more opportunities to break out of our classrooms. They are debilitating silos. Furthermore, we need more opportunities to break out of our schools. They, too, are debilitating silos. For all of us.
Secondary teachers need to see the instructional richness of elementary school classrooms. They need to see differentiation in full effect and see how concepts and skills develop coherently through grade levels. They need to see how to build culture and identity and routines and structure into classroom learning. They need to see beyond algorithms and see the value of learning with concrete manipulatives and visual representations. High school teachers need to spend time learning about math teaching beyond 9th grade and see the work (the successes and struggles) happening in elementary and middle school classrooms.
And elementary teachers need to foster some courage (resolve? chutzpah?) and muscle up against this hierarchy as well. Your voice is needed in the ears of secondary teachers. We need your wisdom because we are not as well grounded in our instructional practices as you may think.
We all need to enter into the uncomfortable space that happens when we vulnerably admit that none of us have all the answers. We all need to learn from another. The answer lies in the strength and diversity of our community.
And I know this takes time and and effort (and money). I know this takes investment of resources in a system run thin of these same resources. But we can’t advance our work unless we do.
A Call to Action
- Find ways to make observe other teachers (at your site or another). Principals, find ways to provide coverage. Teachers hound principals for coverage or consider giving up a prep period when you can (or doing work in the back of someone else’s classroom while they teach). Find a way to make carve out the time. There is always time for what we prioritize most.
- Focus professional learning by choosing a research question. Some research questions might include:
- How does the math content you observe connect to the math content you teach? And how can that knowledge impact your instruction?
- If observing a younger grade level: What can I learn from this teacher and these students about making my content more accessible to my struggling learners?
- If observing an older grade level: What can I learn from this teacher and these students about making my content more enriching for my proficient students?
- What community values does this classroom prioritize? How are they established? How do they impact student learning and instructional choices? What are takeaways that you can try more in your own classroom?
- Join the #ObserveMe movement. (More reflections here.) It’s simple. It’s scalable. And it can be a safe starting point to get a foothold in this cultural battle.