The longer that I am in education - the more books I read, conferences I attend, workshops I give, Twitter feeds I follow - the more I realize just how much I have to learn. Because of the very nature of our craft, teaching is a reflective process. Even when I taught a killer lesson and thought to myself “nailed it” there was always that nagging voice in my head saying, ”But you could have done this instead…”
The more I learn, the more I explore what it means to be a ‘good teacher’, the more I reflect back on my time as a high school teacher and want to cringe. I sincerely need to apologize to many of my former students for all the times I made the wrong decision, said the absolute wrong thing, and even taught the mathematics incorrectly (2001-2002 Nathan Hale AP Calculus students, I’m looking at you!) These are the moments that still haunt me now, many years later. I can name too many times when I did not show compassion towards my high school students and their complex lives outside of school. Math class had to come first! I regularly assigned a compassion-less amount of homework. Not to mention all of the students that I taught in a very procedural way during my first few years in the classroom. I perfected the "sage on the stage" approach to teaching. Reflecting back now, I didn't know what I didn’t know.
Do you know who did know that there was a more effective way to teach mathematics? The NCTM. In 1980, it published An Agenda for Action and in 1989, Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. The NCTM has been calling for reform in mathematics education since I was a student. Principles to Actions arrived in 2014. In 1994, Steve Leinwand wrote Four Teacher-Friendly Postulates for Thriving in a Sea of Change. These postulates are still relevant and timely to math teachers today. I chuckle whenever I hear the phrase “new math.” Educators like Steve Leinwand and organizations like the NCTM have been calling for change for decades. This is not new. What is new is that teachers and schools are finally listening and change is occurring.
If you are a former student of mine, please know that I continue to grow from my mistakes. If you are a teacher who is bravely trying something new this year, sometimes that is enough. I recently read an excellent article by Sunil Singh, Mathematics: In the Age of Brene Brown, about failure and vulnerability in the mathematics classroom. As teachers, not only do we need to show vulnerability, but we need to practice self-compassion when we are vulnerable. Instead of looking backward and only saying what I could have done differently, I acknowledge and own my past mistakes and use them to inform my future. My mission is to use my past experiences, mistakes and all, to help other educators learn and grow and they undertake the very complex and wonderful job of teaching mathematics.
I recently conducted a Twitter search that surprised me.
I was expecting to find a few more results for #compassionatemathematics. Is the lack of results because many adults associate mathematics with negative feelings and the word compassion is the farthest thing from their minds when they hear the word math? Math trauma is definitely a 'thing.' Is it because compassion is often associated with with humanities and not sciences?
Oxford defines compassionate as "feeling or showing concern for others." When I reflect on my time as a student, I don't think I always showed much concern for others. In 3rd grade, I was the first student in my class to memorize all the times tables. When we started studying multiplication, we had a daily quiz starting with the 1 times tables, working up to the 12s. Each student had a paper ice cream cone on the class bulletin board. If you scored perfect on the daily quiz, you placed a paper scoop of ice cream on your cone. The first student with 12 scoops won a Coke. Did I care about the other students who took longer to reach that goal? Nope. Give me my Coke. I won that Coke. And I definitely felt like I was smarter than others because I won the race to the top of my ice cream cone. The system of math education that ensued rewarded memorizers like me while leaving others feeling like they didn't have the 'math gene.' I wouldn't define it as very compassionate.
Interestingly enough, Oxford defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others." Oh my. Maybe compassionate mathematics isn’t a ‘thing’ because too many math learners are busy pitying themselves as they suffer through textbook pages of problems that can be solved by procedures or memorized algorithms. How can they feel compassion for others when they themselves are mired down with rote math learning? Or maybe students are too busy working through textbook practice pages of similar problems instead of communicating and exploring with one another.
When I hear “compassionate mathematics” perhaps I am thinking about how mathematics can be taught in a more humane way? This has been on my radar lately because of a recent Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics that I've been following.
But humanizing math and showing compassion are not the same thing. I dislike the word 'pity' but the word concern resonates with me. How can we help students show more concern for others during math class? One way is to provide them with learning opportunities that connect them with other students in meaningful ways. Jo Boaler is leading the charge with this. Her resources on youcubed provide examples that encourage students to make sense of mathematics while recognizing that often there is more than one way to approach a problem. I can't help but wonder what connections I might have made as a third grader if I had been given the opportunity to explore something like the Four 4's problem with my classmates instead of racing against them to recall my 8 times tables.
What can we do as teachers to be more compassionate towards our math learners? We can be concerned when a student is having an “off day” and can’t seem to get their head in the game of math. Instead of carrying on through a lesson that few students are understanding, we can pay attention to our students and their visual cues that they 'aren’t getting it.' We can find ways to make the math meaningful and relevant to them. We can make changes if a student does feels like he or she does not have a place in our math classroom. Again, Jo Boaler reminds us that there is no math gene and all students can learn math to the highest level. As a high school teacher, at times I prioritized math and the race to cover the syllabus over the needs of the humans I was teaching. I regret that now as I definitely was not showing much compassion.
Ultimately, compassionate math is much more than going to youcubed and downloading some mindset posters to put on your walls. It's a mindset that needs to be explored, pondered, and cultivated with like-minded educators. I think there’s also an important self-compassion piece to it. More on that later.
P.S. I hold no ill-will or judgement towards my third grade teacher. She was a wonderful teacher and I know that she was doing exactly what most teachers did in a 1981 math class. I wonder what learning environment she might have created with youcubed as one of her resources?