Scraping Away Layers Of My Own Skin

The narrative arc of my five years teaching only became apparent to me while writing my last post:

I won’t allow a fourteen year-old to choose to fail.

I only mention such a horribly self-aggrandizing motto because I adopted it only recently, and only after three or four years of committed heel-dragging.

Until recently, and only for one example, if a student was suspended for fighting or for possession or for substance abuse, I would halfheartedly assign some take-home work, taking their suspension as indication that this student was not school material. Upon that student’s return, I would remediate her missing instruction halfheartedly, assuming (often correctly) that another suspension was in the offing, and watch as she fell farther and farther behind, reminding myself self-righteously that the personal freedom we cherish in America sometimes means the freedom to fail.

This attitude was oftentimes subconscious, but somewhere sub-rosa I certainly saw Algebra the way basketball coaches see wind-sprints on the first day of practice: as a device to identify and eliminate the weak rather than a device for empowering the weak.

My professional transformation has been ugly and painful, honestly, mirroring my political transformation exactly, requiring me to pick away the scabs of my socially conservative youth and rid myself of this idea that public schools are ideally a meritocracy where the kids who want success the most will seek me and my instruction out, wherever I am, and if they don’t, then that’s the downside of personal freedom, a concept which I now realize is irresponsibly applied to high school freshmen who (eg.) don’t live with their parents.

This motto asks me to individualize my relationship and my instruction to every student. I believe this motto is essential to good teaching (and I acknowledge humbly that many people have come to this place before me) and I have to point out, in conclusion, that this motto is virtually impossible to apply to 100 students across five classes over an entire career. Good teaching is impossible teaching.

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. I agree that it is an impossible goal to apply daily to 100 students (or 140 or … ). Does that mean it is not a worthwhile goal? If it is unattainable, does that mean you/we still shouldn’t strive for it?

    Does every student need that degree of individual attention every day? While that may be desirable, it is not realistic. I’m getting better at connecting with my students. I’m getting better at trying to reel them back in when they falter. I’m getting better at… Progress is good. I have to keep reminding myself of this as good enough is not good enough for me. Yet I know I still won’t save them all. At least not today. Yet I keep trying.

    As for “empowering the weak” – too often mathematics has been used, not as a gateway, but as a barrier.

  2. That last line you wrote? That’s the reason why I won’t be teaching in a traditional schooling system much longer.

    I love to teach. I have a passion for learning. I am really good at helping others understand. But to do that for every kid in a traditional setting, just doesn’t work.

    And then I feel guilty when I can’t do that 100% of the time.

    It’s not good for my mental health!

  3. As a parent and an educator, I’m thrilled that you shared this post. You have a platform and others will learn from your transparency. It is essential that teachers appreciate the differences between the students who fill the seats in their classrooms. The honor students make teachers look good; the challenge comes with the students who are falling through the cracks, the quiet ones who struggle in silence, the ones who work so hard and still don’t get it and infer “I must be stupid.”

    Do you know which kids in your classes carry that label within themselves?

    (Two of my three kids defined themselves by that label and their math teachers had no clue. What prevented them from going for extra help after school? The realization that they would be unmasked and their teachers would now realize that they WERE stupid. As a parent, I worked very hard to reframe their self-perception, without success. Fortunately, they experienced successes in other areas of their lives).

  4. I’m curious about the process that led you here. Simply because your last two posts feel like they could have been taken from the TFA rubric (what the organization uses to evaluate teachers).

    I’m searching for a specific post from TMAO where he talks about how the organization drilled into his head over and over that it was his responsibility to make sure students learned. This one expressed disappointment because some new teachers he was working with had not yet bought into the belief. It’s interesting to watch you become firmer in your stance on a matter that I’m constantly reminded of.

    I say this in the full knowledge that I’m not there yet. Like Jackie, I’m making progress, but there are still moments where I can feel myself give up. I need to work on minimizing those and maximizing the pulling people through.

  5. I have a student in one of my classes…Real nice kid, real athletic, he can run into a wall, climb it with his legs and flip himself back over onto his feet effortlessly, it’s pretty impressive Not a good student though. I’m not exactly sure why, I know low confidence has something to do with it, but as much as I pull him aside and check-in with him, talk with his mom etc. I can’t get him to ‘step up his game’…his friends in the class are doing well and constantly trying to encourage him too, but still nothing.
    So what do I do – I make him scorekeeper when we play math basketball or give him other roles that don’t do anything to give him access to the content. He doesn’t stand much of a chance of passing, but I’m happy to keep his head off his desk for now. I still can’t decide, is this good or bad?

  6. @Jackie, no, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile goal. Your Twittering and your writing feature more exhaustion this year than last, I think, and I suspect it’s because a) you have adopted that goal (a lot earlier in your career than I ever did), b) you realize that your effort, intelligently applied, matters to student achievement, and c) this job is greedy for your effort, forever greedy, that the monster will never sit back, sated, and say, Jackie, that’s cool, rest for a bit.

    Teaching was great when my efforts weren’t all that intelligent and I figured my impact to be wholly constrained by my students’ home lives, their internal motivation, etc. My second year teaching I finished 100% of my planning on my prep period.

    But once I started going through the motions of intervention of (god help me) believing in my students and taking tangible steps to act on that belief, and I saw kids enjoy math and succeed in it for the first time since fifth grade, that’s when my career hit choppy waves.

    Because I can’t do this with 120 students and maintain any kind of health. But I can’t not do this either, ya dig?

    Sarah, you could be describing any number of posts but one of the best is this.

  7. Good teaching is impossible teaching.

    Amen. I don’t have 100 or 120 students and I’m only student teaching. But 26 kids in one room is too many, too.

    Now that I’ve done the curriculum, planned the lessons, etc, I’d like to start all over again, with all the time in the world and try to figure out how in a room jammed with desks, a few behavioral problem kids, and a huge range of ability, I could get in more group work, more independent work, more self-motivated work and also expand the successful whole class lessons, all while making the writing more interesting and relevant, rather than rote and of the sort that makes kids hate to write.

    Sigh. I still like it though – it’s the challenge I signed up for and I know that there aren’t a ton of people out there doing great things all the time. It’s not that I personally haven’t hit on the perfect one-size-fits-all-kids-and-classrooms model, but that there isn’t one. Teachers are different, kids are different (and change up on you every year), district reqs are different…

    Good to great parenting, spousing, etc. are nearly impossible too — but the prizes go to the people who at least aim for it and look at the overall goals. I think. Or I hope.

    Good enough with constant effort to improve has to be acceptable.

  8. I’ve got three kids (1st grade, 9th grade, 12th grade) — so I’ve seen plenty of teaching and the effects of it. In general? From middle school on, I’m happy with only one “bad” (low average) teacher, mostly average teachers, and one or two good. If there are two great teachers in a year and none bad, it’s a cause for rejoicing. Two bad teachers in academic subjects makes me far less happy.

    However, I was defining acceptable in terms of this post — not letting yourself slide into thinking that if you delivered it was up to the students to catch it and succeed. There’s got to be some acknowledgment of the judgment and developmental level of the audience — whether it’s 1st grade or 10th grade.

    It might look like “great teaching” but if the kid’s aren’t getting it? Then it’s not teaching, let alone great teaching. The learning piece has to come along with the teaching piece to make a match to greatness.

    For instance, Dan’s “good enough” is likely excellent teaching compared to a lot of what’s out there.

  9. At what point does impossible become, well, impossible. We all envision the teachers we’d like to be, could be, want for our own children….

    Is the fact that we try? Keep trying?

    I don’t mean to be a one-upper here, but I teach 194 students every day. Three different classes. One 45-minute prep.

    I decided a long time ago that I was responsible for my students’ learning. That idea looks a whole lot different now. I tutor kids before school, after school, during my prep, during my lunch. . .

    At what point does impossible become impossible? I think it was some point before 194 student mark.