Evolution Of A Math Educator

At first, your students don’t know anything because you teach poorly, and you know this. Then, you become happily aware that some students are learning. You know that other students still aren’t, but you are pedagogically nearsighted and can make only blurry distinctions between the two camps. Your teaching improves and the ranks of the Is Learning camp swells and you know the members of the Isn’t Learning camp by name. You develop better methods of tracking achievement and you know exactly what the students who aren’t learning haven’t learned. Moreover, as you teach, you begin to anticipate the material that will confuse these students. You realize that your intervention can effectively transfer a student from one camp to the other. At a certain point, the technical challenges to increasing student achievement disappear, but the moral challenge remains. Will you do it? Every day, every hour, every student for 180 days, will you do it?

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.


  1. I can’t lie, I will not do it for 180 days. I will shoot for 180 and fail a few days every year. However, as long as the fails aren’t anticipated or carried to other days, I can live with it.

  2. I feel you on this one. And, as a new teacher, I hate that I KNOW I’m teaching poorly (meaning, I KNOW I can teach better next year), but must continue on…

  3. I think one of my biggest fears as a new teacher is that at some point in that progression I will get stuck…Do you think every person, if they teach long enough, will make it to the point where the technical challenges disappear? Or do some people just get stuck in the “pedagogically nearsighted” stage? Or do some people become more aware of student achievement without figuring out how to successfully intervene?

  4. Two years in, ten years out, now three back in… still tortured by my own ignorance and desire for perfection. The wheels of personal progress turn slowly, and introspection is a cruel mistress…

  5. That’s inspiring, especially to someone who’s maybe in phase 2 of 6 or 7…But is it really that black and white, all day every day or bust?

  6. Hm… actually, by “you’re not on the last step” I meant “the step you describe is not the final one a teacher takes” not “you are not on the step you think are,” in case that wasn’t clear.

  7. Unlike Tom, I am definitely suggesting that you are not on the step you think you are on, if I understand you correctly. Are you really saying that you can effectively intervene to enable a pupil to achieve the learning objectives of your lesson in all circumstances? I know you can’t be meaning that, but I can’t find a way to interpret your words differently.

  8. I have 150 students. I have a baby daughter at home, not to mention the wife and a need to take care of myself in at least a minimum fashion (the last is where I really fail). I will meet as many students as I can at the level they want to meet me at. I am not going to work myself into exhaustion trying to get extremely reluctant learners a bit of learning against their will.

    Is there anything more depressing than working long and extra hours to get a 9th grader at the 4th grade level of math up to the 6th grade level after moving mountains and spending hours of extra work with him/her?

    I reject this idea that I am responsible for making sure every single kid has all their academic needs taken care of… I see this idea that every single kid can succeed in your class as a sort of mania from TMAO and now with you, and I wonder how many years you will hold this attitude. They want us to do impossible things with way too many students. If Dan were really serious about this “moral challenge,” he would get the powers that be to drastically reduce our student workload. Otherwise, this all just blather.

    You do what you can in a way that is sustainable over an entire career, or a person will probably leave teaching burnt out and disillusioned and go work at the EdTrust, like TMAO.

    I wonder how many veteran teachers are talking about the moral challenge to have every single student on grade level “every day, every hour, every student for 180 days.” I wonder how many do. I wonder how many last 30 years.

  9. I respect the desire to reach as many students as possible, but this seems like the victory of idealism over reality. You mentioned how the excesses and “brave new world” talk of the ed tech enthusiasts strains credulity. I agree. But you could say the same for those who insist that every student can be reached every day of every year. This is not true, and I think you know better.

  10. I think when someone asks someone else will you do it all day every day it has the potential to be intrusive or patronizing, or inspiring or challenging for that matter, but I’m thinking that Dan’s asking that to himself, not anyone else, which is altogether Ok, no?

  11. Dan,

    Something I don’t remember seeing in the archives is how you handle district requirements/curriculum with your approach. Does your administration simply have faith in you? Do they just accept “proficient” math scores and move on?

  12. I should maybe add that I have been teaching mathematics for 18 years, in two schools on different sides of the track.

    Allow me to guess what Tom’s Zen Master style comment about further steps might mean.

    As the years go by you realise that the success you thought you were having was actually much more limited than you had imagined for some students. Over time, you develop a broader perspective on how your efforts compare to a long list of larger issues, including cultural attitudes, social deprivation and privilege.

    This broader perspective does not necessarily dampen your enthusiasm, but it does bring a large dose of humility.

  13. I don’t even know where to start with the comments sometimes. Rich thinks I should have prefaced this personal narrative by singlehandedly legislating and funding smaller class sizes across the country. To Robert’s eyes, I claimed to have ended poverty. Tom’s cranky critiques are verging on self-satire as he tries to pack the most snark into the shortest comment possible. I don’t know what to do with any of these, but I’ll say right away that it is a mistake to take my personal narrative too prescriptively.

    All this umbrage-taking is probably due to the second-person POV I employed, so I’ll put it in the first person: whereas I used to commit rather grievous instructional errors, deploy very crude instruments of remediation, and hamstring my efforts with poor classroom management, now I don’t.

    I just don’t face those issues any more. The issue I face is: three twenty-minute sessions with Aaron would bring him back up to the class pace. Do I have that in me? Will I do what I know I can do though I would rather not do it, though I would rather sit down for the first time in six hours or hover around the kids who have the material well in hand?

    Teachers, embarrassingly, are unencumbered by quality control agencies or standards and practices, so I am unable to process the question on a professional plane and must default the issue to a moral one. I don’t really know what else to do with it.

  14. I can’t understand why you are so defensive Dan. If you weren’t interested in the opinions of your readers, why did you allow commenting?

    I’m sure that you are a dedicated, effective teacher, and I very much hope that you will stay in the profession long enough to look back on this exchange and see a little more value in our words.

  15. What I see in these comments:

    Teachers who genuinly care about their students, who work hard to be the best teacher they can, yet are not willing to let their career overtake their life. Teaching is a challenging career because you can’t ever be perfect. There are always things you can do to improve regardless whether it’s your first year and struggling or it’s your 35th year and you’re regarded as one of the best teachers around. What’s important is that we constantly work to improve.

    What I see in the author of this post:

    A teacher who has put in lots of time striving to improve his practice and will likely continue on doing the same. We may not all have as much time to put in or be as succesful in how we improve, but it seems silly to take posts like this as saying that all y’all aren’t putting forth the effort you should be (even if that’s your intent dan, which I’m not saying it is).

    Moral: Always work to improve your teaching and student learning. It doesn’t mean you have sacrifice your non-professional life.

  16. Well, one problem here is that this is post appears in the context of a larger political debate, so you get a more critical reading than you might otherwise.

  17. Yeah, thanks. This post is even less sinister than that, though.

    “These are the challenges I faced as a new teacher. These are the challenges I face now.”

    I enjoy dissenting commentary in this forum. I find it difficult to engage commentary dissenting to a post I didn’t write, however.

  18. Not trying to be snarky … well, maybe a little … but many of your readers who commented about “the post you didn’t write” are clearly not good readers. Evidently their high school English teachers didn’t give them the three 20-minutes sessions to help them understand the nature of voice in a writer’s work.

    Or it wasn’t confusing to me because your voice is more clear and engaging to read than the rough drafts I’m slogging through.

    I think you’re absolutely right that it’s a moral decision. And that is why the clarity of the choice he must make may fill a conscientious teacher with fear and despair.

  19. Er, mine was re: Ben, so we’re clear.

    re: Tom, to which larger political debate does this post belong? The Michelle Rhee thing?

    Really befuddled by the Rorschach test this post has become.

  20. A Rorschach test indeed :-)

    I understand that you feel like people have misinterpreted your post. I’m sorry if you feel that I’m in that camp.

    But you did say “At a certain point, the technical challenges to increasing student achievement disappear” and I still can’t understand what you meant. Could you possibly elucidate?

  21. The technical challenges I reference involve classroom management, motivation, curricular organization, teacher/student relationship, time management, remediation, instructional design, etc, that run rampant in a teacher’s first years, that keep a kid from achievement, problems which are, more or less, absent from my fifth year teaching.

    If you want to hold my feet to the fire for not writing “more or less disappear” instead of “disappear,” feel free. You’ll have to pardon my exasperation.

  22. Thanks Dan. I’m not trying to “hold your feet to the fire” – honest! You’re one of the good guys.

    You have put your heart and soul into this profession, made great progress as a teacher and been wonderfully honest here about your journey. It would be mean spirited and pointless of me to demand that you admit that you are not completely perfect, and that really wasn’t my intention.

    Students continue to fail in every school and every class, and as long as that keeps happening we are all on the journey together :-)

  23. I don’t know where others are in their careers, but I’m in my 2nd year of teaching, and so these words resonate with me. The technical challenges are daunting. Right now it’s about crowd control, lesson planning, time management, etc., and less about spending x-minutes/hours with Jerry getting his writing and reading comprehension up to speed.

    I’m looking forward to the getting to that point when I can focus more attention on student achievement, when I can make the moral decisions. Should I care or should I not? My problem, IMHO, is that I am making the moral decisions before I’ve got the technical challenges under control. I think that’s a bit dangerous.

    I guess my concern is that it will never come, that I’ll always be fighting the technical challenges to the degree I am now. Rationally, I know it’ll get easier, but when your swimming (read: not drowning, tg) with no land in sight, it’s difficult to believe in the land.

    Reading your blog, Dan, helps me believe in the land.

  24. Dan! You are my hero. You have me laughing at times and crying at others. I send your post to other (first year) teachers and refer to the post when in conservation.

    Seth Godin said “If you can not state your position in 8 words or less you do not have a position.” Here is my position (written in 2002) ‘Discovering and nurturing possibilities to transform the world.’ Still true today.

    Sir, I will do it.

  25. @Joe: Yes, that is a greater moral challenge. I don’t think Dan is suggesting his moral challenge is the greatest single challenge facing our society- but it is a challenge that all teachers face everyday and individually have great power to meet.

    Rich‘s comments can be summed up (IMHO) as: “That sounds good, but you’ll never actually reach that goal, so there’s no point in trying.” Reminds of a conversation with that teacher who plays solitaire for 2/3 of each class period.

    I’m not successful 100% of the time. Students fail. I fail. I put in time where I can but I’ve learned my limits. Some weekends I choose to not do any school work, some days after school I choose to sit around and relax. Simply because I’m not burning myself out doesn’t mean I can’t aim for lofty goals.

  26. @Ben: I agree with you. I didn’t think that Dan was presenting that struggle as the “greatest” moral challenge, but I empathize with the feeling that Rich writes about. It’s pie-in-the-sky to think that any one teacher can be a change agent to all students absent changes in the deep structural inequalities rampant in our school systems. True change would involve addressing both issues: what happens in the classroom coupled with fixing the factors that inhibit kids from the get-go (poverty, malnutrition, lead poisoning, abuse, etc, etc, etc). It’s no wonder this profession beats the life out of people over time…it’s too much to handle all the time. Hence, TMAO. It’s really tragic on so many levels.

  27. 5th year of teaching.

    Moral: There are just days when I feel I want to do anything else but stay with students after school, let alone 10 students before the test day. Some days I refuse for my own sanity. This is one change I see in myself. I would stay after school 4 days a week my first years of teaching. Then again, I was also doing 10 times the work compared to my students. AND… I felt guilty about my poor teaching.

    Techincal Issues: I settled with the fact my 2nd year that I’ll never be done with them. Though I do agree with a previous posters comment of “… I know how to fix them now.”

    I have really changed my style of teaching just this year towards student responsibility rather than giving every opportunity under the sun for students to pass. (i.e. corrections, corrections on their corrections, retests, etc)
    This may seem a bit crude or that I want to cut my workload, but it comes from a very different point altogether. The world is about firsts. For most of us, you do it right the first time… or… “they’ll” find someone else that can. Maybe I am thinking about this all wrong and these 120 guinea pigs are being deprived of something they deserve this year. It has definitely been a slow process, but I think I’m seeing the sun rays peeking over the hill. It scares me to death waiting/hoping for that sun to rise.

  28. Isn’t it sad that the challenge of helping every student requires us to dig down to moral purpose?

    With high-quality PD and some classroom coaching*, every teacher can accept that all students can learn. Yes, I don’t just say that all students can learn–I say that every TEACHER can believe it too.

    Too bad PD is hit-and-miss and true coaching is rare. I think Dan’s visits to other classes, and his amazing self-reflection are part of this.

    I’ll say one thing though about PD, most high school teachers haven’t been trained to remediate students effectively when they are below grade level. They may give procedural interventions (e.g., practice your times tables, do extra algebra, etc.) but students need to be helped conceptually for the long term.

    Saddest of all, many students are incorrectly placed in the “is learning” category because the go quite far on memorization alone.

    There’s a lot to be learned from our elementary colleagues in this regard!

  29. @Joe

    I love the article… poverty vs. achievement seems so obvious to me. You can’t possibly ignore where a kid comes from and the baggage they carry into the room.

    I often wonder if the extremist of “no excuses” would learn well if they sat on a bed of hot coals in class. For some kids their life outside (and inside) of school seem just as bad. To tell you the truth, for some of those kids, it really might as well be that bad.

    However, this article is fairly far from the topic the thread was about.