Letter to a New Teacher

Awhile back, a new teacher e-mailed me:

I’m tired of watching math taught the way math is taught at my school – review last night’s homework, give notes, start that night’s homework. I want to do things differently but I don’t know how.

I’m not gonna pretend my kids wouldn’t rather be at Seabright than taking my class, but year-for-year my attendance has never been higher. For the first time since getting into this, I get kids mad at me for calling in a sub. Like they prefer the class with me in it than without.

Here, reformatted a bit for blog output, is my reply:

Such a huge question, [redacted]. Let’s see where ten minutes of typing takes us.

Kids today, I think, find the typical classroom pace too slow. Teacher writes something on the board. Kid writes it down. They talk about it. Two years ago I chopped that time in half using a digital projector and Keynote to type my notes in advance of the class. I gesture. I talk about whatever they see on the board but they don’t have to wait for me.

Transitions take too long. Teachers burn a few minutes here and there passing out worksheets or getting kids started into an opener or allowing them to line up at the door early.

Basically I think the first step to creating a classroom that kids look forward to is to reclaim any minutes you possibly can through good planning and good classroom management.

After that you pave the way for a lot of miscellaneous fun. For example, if you run a warmup, toss an interesting question onto the end that’s unrelated to math. They’ll look forward to it. It’ll show ’em that their teacher cares about stuff they’re interested in or at least that she doesn’t just care exclusively about stuff they aren’t interested in (ie. math). I’ve attached a list of questions I use in class, most of which were lifted from a book called Vital Statistics which I wholeheartedly recommendDon’t ask..

After you salt those throughout your class routine, you start making the math more engaging. Ask yourself: if I have a good idea for a mathematical connection or application, can I make a learning experience out of it? If you don’t have a projector, you’re pretty well limited to worksheets and outside artifacts. But from there, walking around with the knowledge that if you had a good idea, you could do something with it, you’ll start getting good ideas from all corners.

I get ’em watching TV a lot. I extract a video clip and make a thirty-minute worksheet out of it. Not ’cause I have any amazing insight or skills but because I’m constantly in teacher mode, looking for interesting things.

So you’ve started tossing small engaging bits along the margins of your classroom and you’ve started making your activities more interesting. Then I really recommend you reconsider how you assign homework and how you assess. In my opinion, the default procedures for homework (1-30 odd) and assessment (large, comprehensive tests every two weeks) are extremely damaging to kids. I have two posts in my most-read sidebar (Why I Don’t Assign Homework & How Math Must Assess) which explain a lot of this.

Brain dump there, [redacted]. Please don’t consider any of this prescriptive or gospel. There are plenty of ways to make a math class that kids hate to miss. These are a few of mine.



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.


  1. Great letter. I do wonder though if “kids today” are that different from kids of the past and if that’s the reason why we have to teach differently.

    I think our parents and grandparents must have been bored in school too. It’s just that now we have additional knowledge and additional tech tools at our disposal so there’s less and less excuses for us to teach in the same way as we were taught.

  2. An engaging letter for sure. It’s interesting to see how you approach your kids. I’ll definitely remember this for the future.

  3. I have homework, but it doesn’t count for much. That and classwork is set at 25 percent of the grade. That way, students who actually care about their learning have an additional outlet.

    Those who don’t — and also manage to know the material for tests and quizzes, the other 75 percent — are happy enough.

    I pass out worksheets by having them on the front table. Students know to pick them up when they come in.


  4. I’ve streamlined so much of what happens in my 5th grade classroom to maximize learning time (including math games while we take bathroom breaks), but this post highlighted for me areas that still need my focus. “Teachers burn a few minutes here and there” – how true. For me, I do so sometimes because I’m trying to get my brain to switch gears. One of the challenges of elementary is the lack of breaks. I have kids for 2/12 – 3 hours at a stretch without a break. I can choose to use that as an excuse or be grateful for the amount of time I have, because there is never enough. Now I’ve just got to mull over how to keep them engaged while I get my brain focused on the next lesson.