Christian Is Concerned

This might seem gratuitous. Jeff, Christian, and Chris have been fretting over my work habits and, because they’re smart guys, odds are good some of my new- and preservice teacher readership shares their misunderstanding of exactly what I’m endorsing here.

From Christian (fourth comment down):

Dan, ALL of us as young teachers (passionately attacking the opportunities with fever) proved that we could spend as many hours outside of the classroom (as inside it) prepping and constructing lessons that demonstrated OUR ‘gift of teaching’. Fear and excitement does that to a guy. So does ego. Just like a young varsity coach still believes she/he has to be able to one-up every one of his/her players to prove they ’still got game’, whereas experienced coaches aren’t breaking a sweat or worried about their 4/40 split on the sidelines.

The kids get it — you know more than they do.
The kids get it — you love the subject more than they do.
The kids get it — you are able to research and plan and all the rest harder than they can.
The kids get it — you’re the teacher.

Imagine back to a recent post-about-a-lesson of yours, for instance, if you had asked the kids to make their own graphing relationship movies (et al) first…maybe you’d do it alongside them…and then watched to see what happened as you ‘both’ learned from the other side along the way. Your expertise/instinct would have been ahead of them, to be sure, but the ‘process’ would have been centered on learning, not on the teacher’s performance or presentation.

If you’ve been reading this blog the same way Christian has, you see my lesson-planning efforts as:

  1. a response to fear
  2. an outcome of excitement
  3. a result of insecurity
  4. sharply focused but pointed in the wrong direction

Two right, anyway.

“Fear” is right on but doesn’t go far enough. I’m terrified of becoming one of the teachers my students vilify, the ones who have only one disciplinary mode, the ones who disrespect their students’ time, who insult their ignorance, who are unclear and uninteresting. I’m terrified of mediocrity even, of settling somewhere above their worst teachers but nowhere near anywhere that matters. So I overwork.

“Excitement” is also an understatement. From my second post evahr: “If the day had 28 hours, I’d spend the bonus four planning lessons.” Teaching is both my hobby and vocation and fear only propels me so far before the very real appeal of the thing takes over.

For Jeff’s concerns, I could pull out some clarifying posts. However, for Christian’s left-field speculation that I’m in this to prove something to my students, to outdo them with my intelligence, preparation, enthusiasm, or prowess, I’ve got nothing but empty hands and upturned eyebrows. I can’t imagine which post or set of posts gave Christian the impression that I’m putting in any of this time for self-serving motives.

To etch it in digital stone, then: the hours I invest planning lessons and honing my presentation style is all to render that presentation, planning, and style completely invisible. There is Understanding at one end of a tunnel and a Student at the other. I scaffold seriously and focus intently on the symbiosis of design and learning to keep that tunnel straight and unobstructed.

Finally, he questions whether or not I could be investing these hours towards greater goals and I can only shrug and say I ask myself that same question every day, every lesson I plan. (There’s this post.) I’ve worked too hard this year to have any ego still invested in the process. If I ever determined somewhere down the line that I wasted so many hours this year on lame instruction and self-serving practice, it’d kill me. Ego fell out of the equation somewhere after the second 60-hour week.

I like his idea of taking my Graphing Stories video project to my kids and setting them loose on their own videos, but if I’m not yet leaping at any other School 2.0 initiatives it’s because I sincerely, and without any ego involved, don’t believe it’s the best way to teach my kids.

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

11 Comments

  1. Yeah, you know what? If you were complaining about how you feel and how worn down you are and how the job is killing you, I’d agree with the others that you’re on a fast track to burn out.

    But, I love reading your blog because of your enthusiasm — your delight when you do something that works and your plans for changing the things that don’t work. Part of what you are doing is real-time experimenting both with the material and with classroom management. I think your classes can’t help but notice that — a teacher that puts in the time and effort to do what works best for them.

    One commenter said he can now do in 20 minutes what used to take 3 hours — I think you will be able to do that as well. Right now you have the time and energy to experiment, to put in the hours, etc. I can’t help but believe that that will help you in the future when you don’t have the time to devote to it/your life outside of work requires more of those hours/you need to kick back.

    In the meantime, I just wish you taught in my district!

  2. If this were chess, Dan the recent “concern” titles would be a decent play. Distraction, but a decent play. Ignore the advice and concern. Hammer on. Otherwise, you might find yourself distracted.

    BTW, all of us were offering a very similar rationale for our excessive and unapologetic hours back in our own first few years of teaching. We may not have been blogging with sophistication about planning and presentation becoming invisible at the same rate of speed that we in fact worried about presentation and planning, but it’s intriguing how familiar your argument feels. I can’t recall “ego” being my defense, either…and I suspect that the other voices offering some perspective from a few more years down the pike weren’t on an “ego” parade line either. The irony, however, is that “ego” drives much early on when you’re making it up as you go. Saving the planet is a better bumper sticker, however. Not wanting to become “one of those teachers” is almost as good.

    I do wonder — forgive me for this because I’m probably way off here — how “ego” doesn’t in fact drive the following statement of yours here: “..odds are good some of my new- and preservice teacher readership shares their misunderstanding of exactly what I’m endorsing here”.

    Does all of this come down to making sure that your “new- and preservice teacher readership” is somehow kept illuminated, that they can track your endorsements, that their next few years hinge on getting your argument figured out? Is that really why you offered your response? Really? As an ex-English teacher, the line above was your thesis. Everything hinges on it. The rest was the defense, particulars — but still the defense. Hopefully the your “new- and preservice teacher readership” will keep their rudder in the water knowing you’re worried about their potential “misunderstanding”. And the old guys who have unintentionally shifted the focus from your lesson plans and the kids themselves will be equally at peace.

    Still not sure if will matter much in a few years when you look back on your development as a professional.

    If at the end of the day the ultimate take-away for you is to simply overlook the respect each of us has for your teaching instincts and intentions and raw potential in the field (that will undoubtedly offer you a ‘master’ teacher path one day) simply to slice-n-dice the issue of “fear” and “ego” so as to draw attention away from the simple fact that many of us were right where you are now — slinging the hours, building lesson plans at hyper-speed, and throwing our hearts/bodies on the tracks for our kids, all the while not wanting to become like those “other teachers” the kids “vilified” — then you’d be better served to ignore the comments and posts written by others. Not sure what you’re defending, Dan. The instinct to defend is pretty human. But at a certain point, you still have the blessing of some time to reflect back on it. While it may be noble to worry about your “new- and preservice teacher readership”, and tempting to defend every observation that seems to strike home or even to misread your endorsements, perhaps it takes you a bit off-course to pursue each side of the fulcrum with such fever.

    Either way, you’ve “put up some huge numbers” in season three. Probably OK to let the defensive posture down. Your “readership” has already come to respect you. Just because they don’t all glow at every grammatical turn, doesn’t mean that you’re not being well received. Even in spite of statements like this: “If I ever determined somewhere down the line that I wasted so many hours this year on lame instruction and self-serving practice, it’d kill me. Ego fell out of the equation somewhere after the second 60-hour week.” that appear to defend well at first glance. All of us who have made them in the past as young teachers didn’t make it very far before we had to smile at the irony of our own words. Amazing how much deeper and richer the teaching experience — and relationship with both colleagues and students alike — became once we let go of that early posture.

    But again, it is probably just “concern” — and well worth ignoring. Certain that there are better future blog post titles waiting for you out there, as well.

    Cheers,
    Christian

  3. I was less concerned after reading your comment that “the hours I invest planning lessons and honing my presentation style is all to render that presentation, planning, and style completely invisible.”. I think that we forget that the actual “art” of teaching is something that needs to be honed. Your time spent in this work is similar to an artist practicing their brush strokes or a musician practicing their scales. However, someone told me once “the person working in the classroom is learning”. You can spend your time working on your knowledge of the subject, but that doesn’t mean the kids are going to get it. They have to be pushed into action before learning can take place. Spend your time on the “pushing” and you will see results.

    Also, remember that the people who comment here for the most part have no idea what is going on in your classroom. They only know what they read. Don’t let them get to you, but also listen seriously to their concerns. I would hate to see another idealistic, energetic teacher leave the business.

  4. Vicki Madden

    May 14, 2007 - 5:22 am -

    Wow! I am fascinated by this discussion. Is the concern that Dan is going to burn out? Because it seems to me that his point in developing his lessons this way is that, yes, it’s a huge investment in year 1, but after that the focus is on tweaking the saved lessons to get the best results for the students. I have been teaching for 20 years, and I have found that every minute I spend thinking through how I present the information really affects how well the students can understand and then use it to make stuff themselves.

    I am a big believer in constructivism, but I have seen a collosal amount of learning time wasted by not scaffolding the activities clearly up front. That is a teacher’s job. It’s true that “the person working in the classroom is learning,” and I assume that the students are the ones working in the classroom in response to the lessons Dan has structured. My students *work* in my lab, and sometimes it’s just a continuation of a project and I do no lesson at all, just moving around and conferring and helping. But when that happens, it is precisely because I have planned and scaffolded an activity that hits them right where they hit “flow,” challenging enough to engage but not so challenging that they shut down with anxiety. It’s the teacher’s job to communicate what they need to know and set up the parameters of the project so that they are working in their zone. To get to that place, I have presented carefully scripted lessons before they do the work. I have tried less structured lessons, and I find the investment of my time in what I am going to demonstrate in what particular order, and where I pause, etc, makes an enormous difference in student learning. And that is what it’s about, isn’t it? (I could go on and on about different outcomes based on student socioeconomic levels, but that’s for another day.)

  5. Christian, given how bent you’ve been on proving my egotism, I wondered if you’d seize my thesis as proof.

    Maybe it is egotism for me to think I have anything to offer a younger teacher. Given how much I’ve been offered by those more experienced than I am, I can’t believe that’s true by default.

    The truth is that I started and continue blogging because I had such a rotten first year and would rather other starters didn’t have the same experience I did. That’s why so many of my posts scratch beginner issues of class management. That’s why I bother with the extra hours to post full lessons and full downloads of stuff I’ve done. That’s why I decided to distract myself by defending your concerns (which have flirted frequently with condescension). You brought up good examples of poor motivation for teaching. I thought it was worth my time and my readers’ to discuss the difference between that and mine.

  6. You’re a good man, Dan; and a hell of a teacher (3rd year or ‘master’ matters little at this point; the talent/instinct is obvious there). Period.

    The conversation and profession is well served by your passion, your work ethic, and your willingness to be transparent in your strategies/goals along the way. All of us are learning much by virtue of your leadership and vision, your confident answers and your questions alike, and the opportunity to interact.

    On a professional/personal level, you certainly do not need to weather condesending comments or attacks on your character/intentions in the process of exploring ideas. You’re putting too much out there for the right reasons to be way-laid by such comments. I also hope that you’re in a position to see the other side of the comment mirror when visiting blogging colleagues/antagonists alike in the future. I’m certain that 99.9% of their posts are not fueled by ego or offered simply to be sliced word-for-word. Sometimes they are simply exploring ideas out-loud, looking for colleagues to help them grow in the process. Sometimes they’re not really trying to win the argument. Truly.

    On my own personal level, I accept your well-selected challenge back at me (“flirted frequently with condescension”) as part of my own learning process. And offer appreciation for the challenge as well. Much thanks. Truly.

    Cheers, Christian

  7. Vicki: Because it seems to me that his point in developing his lessons this way is that, yes, it’s a huge investment in year 1, but after that the focus is on tweaking the saved lessons to get the best results for the students.

    Yeah. I feel like the impression currently floating is that I’m planning on or even looking forward to keeping this schedule up over a career, which sounds repulsive even to me in my current tornado state. Jonathan has given me enough reasons to be uncertain about next year but I’m still positive it’s gonna be a lot easier than the game I’m running right now.

    P.S. I really dig your constructivism workflow. I don’t feel comfortable with the hands-off approach, the give-’em-the-tools-and-get-out-of-the-way ethos endorsed by many, but the medium you represent between constructivism and direct instruction sounds totally solid. I’d enjoy learning more about your scaffolding process. Alas, it seems you’re too cool for blogging.

  8. Vicki Madden

    May 15, 2007 - 4:54 am -

    More like too lazy or too tired. I am in the phase of career involving 2 kids, mortgage, husband, feeble attempts at maintaining physical and mental health, also at my school long enough as a teacher and parent to be too involved with every possible committee.

    I am amazed by the people who are doing so much more than me — like running schools — and still blog. But I know that for some the chance to reflect and connect is energizing, rather than just one more task.

  9. Hi Dan,

    … but the ‘process’ would have been centered on learning, not on the teacher’s performance or presentation.

    … However, for Christian’s left-field speculation that I’m in this to prove something to my students, to outdo them with my intelligence, preparation, enthusiasm, or prowess, I’ve got nothing but empty hands and upturned eyebrows.

    I don’t. I wanted to say something a long time ago, but there never seemed to be an opportunity, and after all I figured I don’t have to read your blog. It’s your space and you can do whatever you want with it. However, I did think you wrote well, so every once in a while I’d come back and read up a little, so I ran into this discussion. I can see where Christian is coming from. My experience is with my and other’s comments on mathematics. I remember several of us commenting and every time my impression from you was that we were somehow “paying attention to the wrong thing”. If we were full of praise, you were sweet, but if we pointed out what we thought were problems we were either dismissed as nit pickers or paid lip service (with comments “Sure, I’ll change that” but I don’t recall anything did change).

  10. I’m not exactly sure how your comment ties to this post, e, but, then, I’m still a little unclear how my original post on the merits of School 2.0 gave rise to all this concern for my blood pressure.

    Anyway, this’d almost make a better e-mail from me to you but I’ll put it here in case I chased others like you off.

    There was this moment, first posting my lessons, where all the small criticisms just felt kinda pedantic and beside the point, and I went all Johnny Freak-Out on you and Rich. I apologized then and I will now too. That was me feeling insecure and overly-protective. You should know that I never paid lip service to your critiques. I always changed my own plans and assessments (particularly with your note that my quizzes read “Translation” when I was asking for transformations. ) I didn’t always re-upload the updated files, as posting the lessons in four different formats + annotations has always been a burden.

    But it’s as true now as it was then that I’m looking for contributors to these lessons more than editors. You have been content to make surface-level criticisms of my work when I’ve been looking for substantive ways to make our teaching clearer, more enjoyable, and lucid. Rich still occasionally busts my chops for small errors (stuff which I grudgingly cop to even while it goes unnoticed by 100% of my students), but his criticisms are totally palatable because the fella’s in there, recommending some really great activities, offering links, and real substantive support. If that isn’t your interest or department, no hard feelings for splitting.

  11. You certainly have your way with words. Maybe you should have taught English. You give a compliment, and then you say things like “ You have been content to make surface-level criticisms of my work when I’ve been looking for substantive ways…” And this is probably where our views differ the most. Mathematics is what you teach. So a criticism, or correction of mathematical content shouldn’t be a surface level issue. If Rich, or me, or anyone, points out things that your students don’t notice, that’s because your students do not know those things. They are supposed to be learning them.

    I may have come across as too critical. Written word (especially mine) often lacks personality and tone to be understood the way it was intended. You certainly have great ideas, and your presentations (the ones on paper anyway) are impressive. Should you be content with your lesson plans until you retire? Should you be content with both the material in those lessons, and their presentation? I would hope not.

    That’s all from me. If you prefer email, you have mine. Feel free.