My Biggest Fail…

First off, I would like to really say thank you to Annie (@Annieperkins) for being bold and posting her failure this week.  It was a great story, reminder, and way to cope with what we do on a daily basis.  Read her awesome post here.


This is why I really appreciate the MTBoS, there is no way I could have these discussions and reflections without it.  It is a conversation I could have with my close colleagues (CLOSE colleagues, you don’t want everyone in the building knowing this), and even then when you are the only math teacher in the building it makes it hard to really connect with any condolences you may receive (because you know, our profession is SO much different than anyone else’s).  It is comforting to know that others experience the same struggles that I do.

I can totally relate to Annie’s initial fears of “airing out” her failure.  When I started blogging, I wrote one post to begin with, and didn’t post another for 6 months.  Why was this?  Feeling of failure and insecurity.  I started blogging because I wanted a way to have reflections and records of what I did through the years, but I will be honest in the fact that “putting yourself out there” is very hard and immensely daunting.  I mean, anyone can access my blog and read what I post, how will I be viewed as a person, teacher or presenter when I write about all of my shortcomings?  Even now, I rarely tell anyone about my blog in district- I still have that fear.  I’m getting better, and presenting at NCTM San Antonio was a huge breakthrough for me in this.  I am far from where I feel I need to go, but I am a lot more accepting of what I do here on my blog and twitter.

MCTM Pic.png

(Like this Pic, I love that I’m presenting- but I’m like “My eyes are closed!  Thanks Nicole, I look like a dumb-___!”)

So, off to my biggest fail- and I really have to thank Annie for making me revisit this blast from the past.  It was a turning point in my teaching career, and it started me down this path to seeking people, research and resources to make myself into the teacher I wish I had (yea, here’s also to you Tracy!).

It was early in my teaching career, and I had gone through 4 administrators in the first 3 years of teaching.  This year was proving no different, this was my second administrator for the year (the first had gotten into a car accident and passed away, so our middle school administrator started servicing both buildings) I was in my final year of administrator observations.  Trying to lesson plan for that many different administrators and being a new teacher is a HUGE stress factor, I was used to test-taking for that many professors- having to focus on what they deemed important and be evaluated by their exams- but when it was the determining factor for my JOB it was a whole different level.  Every administrator has a different focus and what they deem is important to teaching in “their” building.  This administrator was a traditionalist, so I tried to “please” him for my observation.

The lesson was an exercise in boring.  We had “student note” workbooks, which meant I spent the hour in direct lecture, drawing beautiful diagrams and defining vocabulary for students to then copy in their workbooks.  This was one of the most difficult lessons I did (for me personally as a teacher, this wasn’t my style), it felt wrong- and there was a particular student who felt that way as well.  I noticed him right after defining the term polynomial- he had his head propped up on his hand and had is eyes closed.  This particular student was one who was “at-risk”: he rarely attended class, he had numerous discipline problems, a challenging home life, and he was behind on credits- but he was extremely smart.  It took me a while to catch a hook on this student, and typically we had a good working relationship for class.  He liked the way I typically approached class, and could not do “traditional.”  His current status for this lesson wasn’t a surprise, and I tried to gather his attention by allowing students near him to share with the class, I taught from his general area instead of by the board- but I knew that if I called him out directly in front of his peers and in front of the principal there would be a problem.  It was a tough choice to make since I was being observed, but since he was seated off to the side and towards the back of the room, I allowed him some space and continued with class.


The principal left during our “direct lesson note-taking” and when that was done, I followed through with the schema and assigned practice problems.  Once I had this done, I approached my student and quietly talked with him in class about what he was doing, what we had covered and what would happen next.  He told me he had a really tough night, there was a fight at his home and he stayed up most of the night protecting his siblings.  He stated that no one ever came to the back of the trailer to their room, but he was afraid to sleep.  He also told me he was sorry because he knew the principal was there, but he couldn’t stay awake.  I quickly reviewed what we had went over, and he found a partner to work with and catch up on his notes.  Not a major deal breaker in the least- as far as I was concerned.

The next day, I had a follow up with my administrator.  That is where I found out that for the first time since I had been teaching, I failed.  He did not have any sort of rapport with the student who was sleeping in class, and once he had come to the principal’s attention, everything I had done in class after that was forgotten.  I was supposed to confront the student, get them awake and attentive- or send him to the ISS room to “rethink” his actions.  This was a very hard observation meeting for me to attend, this was my last year of mandatory assessments, my last year of probationary teaching, and this man held the power to end my career at the school.  Instead of sticking up for myself and my student, I shouldered the burden of being a bad teacher and was referred to a “master teacher” with which to work and council.  I received an hour long “in-house PD” lesson on the fine arts of classroom management and student behavior from him.  I had an extra observation that year from him as well as three more that was required from my co-operating teacher.  At the end of the year, on the last day of school, I was called into his office (in the middle school building no less) to be told that I was no longer a high school teacher and I was moved to the middle school.  I was to have another year of probation where I could be overseen by him personally.  I won’t go into that next stress-filled year but all I could think about was that I was the worst teacher ever.  I even actively sought out new positions in my area because I felt so much shame that I wasn’t sure I could work in the district anymore.


I was a bad teacher, so bad I had to move to a different school, teach a different grade, have a mentor and be personally watched over by the principal

It was difficult for me that summer, my teaching self-esteem was shattered.  There wasn’t any local teaching jobs open in my area and although I applied for any other related type of field I didn’t get any calls for interviews.  This left me in a low that I had never really felt before- I even almost went back to bartending just so I didn’t have to work another year for a man I was sure was using me for another year before sending me on my way.

I can’t thank my wife and friends enough that summer, they kept me doing things and always were great ears for me.  They convinced me to keep moving forward, to prove who I was and to take this new challenge and make the best of it I could.  Standing outside my car, outside that building and taking that first step into the middle school, his place of power, was a very difficult step to take.  Although I never gave into his vision of what kind of teacher I should be, the whole experience did shape me into the teacher I now am.

Wow, I can’t believe I actually just typed all of this and am going to put it out there on the web- but I do realize that now that I have I can start being more accepting of the smaller failures I have along the path of teaching.

Teaching students is the biggest act of being human.  I hated that most instructors feel they have to come from a place of absolute power and certainty.  I knew this was never the truth because all through school I thought about Math differently than it was presented to me, I played the game however and on tests I would replicate the work they wanted me to do.  There were times I forgot and I had many long talks with the teacher explaining my work.  As teachers we can’t be afraid to show students that we too struggle with work, make mistakes and feel like failures.  Students need to know that it’s OK for that to happen, but it doesn’t have to shape who you are.  We also have to teach them how to get back up from failure and keep going, no matter how hard it seems.  This is what being a teacher truly is.


I failed myself that day, and I failed my students- not because of my lack of content knowledge but because I was afraid to show an outsider who I really was and how I used that to create a learning environment where all of my students have the opportunity to be successful.  If you see me in class, you will see one of these being used by me, in a way I feel comfortable with that allows my students to own their own mathematical ability- not mine.


What did I realize a few years later (well, actually 3 years later when that Administrator also left the district)?  I was a good teacher, I made the right call for all of my students at the time, and no one in that room (other than my administrator) thought I was not doing my job or supporting them to my fullest.

Sometimes, being a “failure” is actually the best thing that can happen to you.  Thanks Annie for inspiring me to share this story and many more in years to come.


The Moment…

One of my good friends once said that “we need to let go of the things we can’t control and focus on those we can” she also said that “until we want to, we truly can’t change anything” (OK, so maybe I paraphrased a bit @veganmathbeagle).  It wasn’t until NCTM in San Antonio that I had that moment, the moment where I wanted to change how I approach conferences.


I flew into San Antonio on Wednesday and picked up my program.  I first double-checked when my speaking session was , the time and where, then I started looking through the program to find sessions.  While I was looking I had my moment.  The moment I am talking about is when you realize that you are stuck in a rut, that you are doing the same things over and over even though you are wanting to change.  It’s no one’s fault that this happens, it seems to be a condition of being human- finding safety and security in doing the same things, finding a pattern to your life.  The bad thing is when you do these in a profession such as ours (that is, unless you are a super-teacher whose students are exceeding in their learning).

My moment was realizing that when I come to these conferences, even though I want to find new things to implement in my classroom I also want to talk with and hang around my friends on the #MTBoS that I never see.  As such, I revert to the high school student who takes all their friends’ classes- and while that is not necessarily bad it also doesn’t fully address MY needs, I am attending sessions that satisfy their needs (and as we know sometimes those overlap in areas).


Looking at my program, I was highlighting people I interact with through the #MTBoS (and by interacting, I also mean stalking because there are times I don’t feel like I can approach them).  I do this at my local conference a lot- I go to my friend’s sessions.  That hasn’t been bad so far because I still need those connections, my friends do push me to become a better teacher.  The problem is that, for the most part, I am already aware of their passions and know about their session.  This is not NEW material to push myself as a teacher.  So when I caught myself highlighting my “peeps”; Dan Meyer, Robert Kaplinsky, Andrew Stadel, etc, I realized that perhaps I need to find a different direction for this conference.  This feeling was further enforced as I stood on the second floor balcony and observed how many math people were present at the conference.  I thought I had a large network of math people because of my involvement in #MTBoS, but here was concrete evidence that my potential mathematical network could be much, much larger.

So I took a different approach, I sat down and really read through the program and found sessions that really touched on areas for myself as a teacher.  I didn’t hang out with all my twitter people as I usually do (and I will say I am sorry for that, I was being purposeful this conference but I always tried to say Hi when I saw you guys around).  I went to sessions of people I didn’t know (or perhaps I did but I’m getting old and didn’t remember).  I looked for sessions that would directly impact my needs as a teacher working at a juvenile center where 90% of my students have special needs.  A funny thing happened, there were a couple of sessions where I did go to my “twitter friends”, and there were sessions that friends also attended.  The big thing is that I met new friends, heard new voices, got fresh ideas.

I am hoping that I will be able to attend NCTM again next year in DC, if I do I will plan a balance of “being with my friends” and “finding something new”.  I also hope that ShadowCon will consider @delta_dc’s comment on “the Next Generation”, allowing newcomers to present and add their voice to our great community.

If we truly want to change, we can’t continue to travel in the same circles we always do.  I find it funny that we, as a community, lament the fact that teaching always seems to revert to those strategies and curriculum that we strongly feel is wrong- but that we are unable to see those same qualities within ourselves.  Perhaps this blog will inspire the moment within you where you realize that you also need to step outside of your current zone- that every one of us needs to in order to challenge our ideas, our absolute belief that we are teaching the only way possible to teach our students.  Because in reality, there is so much more we can learn from those on the sidelines of our #MTBoS community that can enrich our own learning and that of our students.


PEMDAS? Is order of operations the only way?

This year I have had quite a few students who are pushing themselves mathematically and doing a lot of great thinking.  This also equates to making me think as well, and I really need that.  Now a student has me thinking about PEMDAS, how it is taught, and how it is a coveted norm of mathematics.

One thing I have always struggled with when talking with students about PEMDAS is how to make it meaningful for students without pulling out the “This is the way it is” card.  I don’t want it to become a memorization practice only, I really want students to understand why we do operations in a particular order.

One thing I have used and students understand (not surprising because I adopted this because of a student) is that multiplication implies “groups of.”  I’m sure many pure mathematicians might frown upon this, or the fact that it also leads to repeated addition, but students really grasp the concept and start visualizing order of operations.


3 groups of 4 plus 2



When students think of it this way, they don’t want to add 4 and 2 and then multiply that by 3.  This is also true when they see 2+3×4, the “groups of” thinking prevents them from adding 2 and 3.  Is this just replacing a trick with a trick?  It took me a few years to even accept this type of thinking for my students- I don’t want to provide a new crutch for students.

This all leads me to the other day, when a student was solving the equation 3X + 2 = 8.  He was unsure of what to do, so I asked him what step he would try.  He repled: “I would divide by 3 since I want to solve for X.”  I immediately balked, that answer went against all of my mathematical fiber, but I tried to not show it visibly.  I told him to go ahead and try his idea.  This is what was produced:

student solution 1.PNG

Wait now!  Hold on, that is the answer I expected, but not attained in the way I assumed it would be.  I can’t tell you how many times I have used the last in- first out type of thinking with students to solve equations, and I expected seeing something like this:

Expected Solution 1.PNG

But all of these provide the same solution!  Is that a fluke?  Some weird oddity that can’t be reproduced?  It had me thinking of possible counter-examples and what else it could imply.  Does order of operation last in-first out thinking absolute in solving equations?  Or is it something like the standard addition algorithm that we accept as the best method and ignore others?  My student gave me another example to consider later that hour.

This problem involved the area of a trapezoid.  They wanted him to algebraically solve it for b2.  I was very curious what he was going to do, and instead of starting with the parenthesis, so subtracting b1 (which is what I assumed he would do because of his previous reply), he told me he needed to distribute before solving.  His work was this:

Student solution 2.PNG

Which again produced the correct solution after he cleaned up the compound fraction.  Once again his work produced the right answer without doing the expected procedure:

expected solution 2.PNG

So currently I am rethinking approaches to solving equations.  How will not using the standard approach effect him later on?  I can see how trying some sort of variation on this with powers will be messy.  I’m totally open to suggestions and comments on this, as it has my brain working on overload ATM.

Where our youth go…

I haven’t been on the blog horn or even Twitter that much other than #MSMathChat, and that is because right now I am struggling a bit to keep my head above water this year.  There is a lot going on (and taking Grad classes on top of everything wasn’t a good call).

This post is gonna be short, but it just hit me yesterday and I wanted to get it on my blog so I have it and remember.

This week has been fairly slow, I have had 6 new students come in and 6 leave.  I’m getting used to that, it really makes trying to keep a cohesive classroom hard- but I have been managing.  That’s not the factor that hit me, it’s this one:

70% of my current students are return students.

Normally high school teachers don’t bat an eye at that statistic, in fact they expect a lot higher one, but not when you are teaching in a Juvenile Center.  That number means that even though these students get a grip on their lives while they exist within these walls, they can’t maintain that when they go back home.

As a parent of a 5 and 8 year olds, I am getting more and more sensitive to factors that influence their lives, their behaviors, their choices.  When I talk to my “returning” students, they have ALL told me that they go back home fully intending to keep out of trouble, yet they fall into the same group negatives or they can’t cope with the bad family environment at home.  As a teacher and parent, this makes me immensely sad.


(this is a random picture taken from the WWW, it is not any student that is enrolled  in my school or staff that works at my school)

Our youth make their own choices, but many are too unsure of themselves to be confident to walk their own path individually.  They need their friends and family, and if those happen to be a negative influence on them- returning them to that environment is setting them up for failure.  I don’t know what the correct answers are for this issue, they go beyond my scope of expertise or experience, but I am beginning to believe that in order to truly change things for these students then those outside factors also need to go through the “treatment” processes these children face.

We can’t keep placing them in the same situation and expecting different results.

All children deserve to be loved, and have a safe positive environment to learn and grow in.

What exactly do you mean, MY students?!


High stakes standardized testing, how we all dread those words.  Most of our students aren’t overly fond of them either, no matter what incentives or snacks you throw at them, it is a time where they are evaluated on what they know in conditions that are so unlike their classroom it’s laughable to think that we attempt to measure student knowledge in this manner.

Sitting on committees of these tests and seeing proposed test questions and data from piloted questions is an interesting experience.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to do so, please do- your state and testing company needs to hear your input on what students are exposed to.  These tests mold students’ personalities over the years, it tells students if they are smart, or dumb, and it even tells them specifically what areas they fail in.  I realize I am being overly dramatic and negative right now, but I want that to sink in for those of you reading this.  No matter what we tell them about those scores, no matter how positive anyone is about testing, constant reminders of shortcomings and failures build up.

Most state education websites have a place for you to sign up for these advisory committees, and I would strongly suggest participating in at least one during your teaching career.  One reason I suggest this is: you get a great idea of beliefs of teachers, testing officials, your department of education, and how students are viewed at these meetings.  Most of that stuff is not pretty, at all as long as you don’t have your rose colored glasses on (like I did the first time I attended one).  I have been on three of these so far, and for some reason they keep calling me back- which is good for the students I work with because they have no voice at these meetings and are in no way represented or considered if I don’t.

This is where the problem happens.  For these committees, there are typically a small number of teachers representing different demographics of our state.  I represent a small school (less than 350 students) and teach a large number of Native American students.  Typically I find that other than small school connections, the other teachers really have no idea how my students approach or think about tests or test items.


When we look at data, we get the problem, the answers, data about how students performed on that pilot problem, and rationale about why the answers were chosen for the problem (on multiple choice questions).  The biggest data they look at is a value that indicates how difficult a problem is. They also have an indicator on how “relevant” that difficulty score is- meaning is it just guessing or not.  The problem I have is that many of the other teachers in the group were fine with a lot of these questions, but I was not… here’s why.

  1. Many of the teachers I worked with were from privileged schools: middle to upper class white schools OR charter schools where enrollment is screened.  Coming from a background of teaching students of poverty or withing a juvenile justice center, viewpoints on students norms are vastly different.
  2. Many of the questions they considered “hard” or “cognitively difficult” were word problems.  This becomes a test question on a student’s language skills, not math skills or mathematical thinking.  When I stripped all of the language barriers out of these problems, they were not mathematically challenging to solve and I would estimate 80% of my students could easily find the correct solution.  So my question every time was: is there a better way we could ask this question?

I questioned many of these pilot questions for our testing.  They were not especially challenging math problems for students to contemplate; they were problems testing a student’s vocabulary skills, what background knowledge they had compared to the writer’s, and their ability to recognize what facts they needed for the problem and what they didn’t. 

That last statement I do feel is important, students need to be able to determine what they need for a problem and what is irrelevant.  That is a very crucial part of mathematical thinking and problem solving.  The problem I have is when it is shrouded in context that is not familiar or attainable for students.  There was never a time that all students lived in pleasantville, yet those contexts have been are are used for word problems that “relate to all students.”  This thinking needs to stop.  Many of my students don’t have the privilege of their own space to call home, a bed or even a meal to look forward to.  They can’t relate to problems based in context that is a fantasy world for them.


We, as a math community, need to figure out a way to present mathematically challenging problems to students without providing a language or reading barrier, because that is what we ultimately end up measuring- not their mathematical ability.  I kept getting the the statement thrown at me, “Well Bryan, how many of your students would actually see this problem?”  MY students?  Are you kidding?  They are OUR students, our schools, our communities, our country, our world.  We need to change our thinking about what experiences our students have, how we present problems, and what language we use.


They are my kids, and I need to stand up for them so they have the same opportunity to demonstrate their mathematical mastery as any other student that is taught in our country.


Summer is closing…

I know my twitter feed and blog has collected some cobwebs and dust this summer, and that’s a norm for me.  Summer is a time where I immerse myself in my favorite pass time- my family.  This summer has been extra crammed with the Master’s courses I have taken- just one more year, just one more year…

Things will be firing up here again soon, I hit the classroom the day after labor day.

See you all again soon.