What Just Happened?

I can’t really leave teaching on better terms than these.

I never coached tennis. I never sponsored a club. I didn’t attend the plays or games or concerts I always felt I should have. I regret that. I never watched a freshman class graduate, never saw them from the start of high school to the finish. I regret that most of all.

But I have made amends with classroom management, time management, and compensation, the challenges which, at various points over five years, had me talking to admissions officers at schools of engineering and medicine. After five years, I am unequivocally a “happy” teacher.

I regard this professional transformation (from miserable to happy, incompetent to competent) with complete stupefication. The arc of a new teacher’s development is short and bends in any number of directions. My own was filled from beginning to end with lucky coincidences, chance mentors who appeared and disappeared at the exact moment I most needed them, hobbies from my childhood which came back around to pay off huge dividends in my classroom. I can’t explain any of it. I know I could do it all over again and arrive a completely different teacher.

I need to get a fix on some larger issues of teacher development and I can’t do that from the ground level here, from the classroom, with blog posts scattered around and squeaked out in the fifteen-minute interval after lesson planning ends and before my wife gets off shift. I am enrolled in in the Ph.D. program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for the fall, to what end I don’t yet know. But I’m ready to spend half a decade or more pursuing the answer to a single, confounding question.

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. There seems to be a sentence missing at the end of this post!

    Fair winds and following seas. I hope you’ll keep sharing your insights.

  2. Wow, best of luck to you in all of that, Dan.

    If you don’t start your PhD program until fall, does that mean we might see a few photography posts on here this summer?

  3. Best of luck to you…you have earned it!

    Please keep the blog going! New teachers (like myself) have a lot to learn from you. I can say without hesitation that your insight, and the resulting conversations on this blog, have made me a much better teacher in this short year.

  4. It has been a pleasure to read your blog and I look forward to seeing where you take this. Best of luck on your new path.

  5. Michael Gallant

    June 12, 2009 - 8:37 am -

    Dan, best of luck with your Ph.D. program. If anyone has the insight and pedagogical awareness to earn a doctoral degree, it’s you. Just make sure that you remember those of us who have come to rely on your blog as a major component of our professional development. Your posts transform practices – please keep the ideas coming!

  6. Another echo of congratulations on making this decision. I’m curious to see how this space continues to evolve throughout your next half-decade.

  7. All the best from a recent Banana Slug Ph.D. (class of 2006) to you. Are you enrolled in the Education or Mathematics program? For what it is worth, I found your site after you posted the videos series last summer and you have become a source of great inspiration. I’ve always thought there was very little anyone could say about teaching that would make a profound impact on someone else’s ability to teach. It is quite pleasing to admit I was wrong.

  8. I wish you the best…

    And maybe I don’t I get too literal sometimes, but some words you wrote on this blog have inspired and encouraged me to be more honest with my colleagues, and so I will be more honest than I should be with you.

    You are probably a way better than average teacher. Students will miss you and your replacement will not be as good. If this is the thing you must do, then do it, and find a way back to the classroom. There are far too few people like you teaching math.

    Who will fight if not the fighters?


  9. Thanks again for all your inspiration. Your blog got me blogging — which subsequently got me thinking, and communicating, and holding myself to a higher bar than the bar my school sets for me.

    I wish you much happiness in your PhD program. Me being someone who left academia (pursuing a PhD in history) because I found it really insular and whittled away my enthusiasm, I humbly offer you some unsolicited advice: just keep yourself grounded and focused on that key question that brought you to grad school in the first place (“What just happened?”). Okay now that I’ve done the deed, I have to apologize. I hate when people give me unsolicited advice.

    Forgive me that, and congratulations on this next and exciting phase of your career! I can’t wait to see what more things you get us thinking and talking about.

  10. Erik (brklynsurfer)

    June 12, 2009 - 10:29 pm -

    I was just thinking the other day, Wow, I can’t wait for Dan’s summer video series to start. You have gotten me through my first year of teaching. Not by just saying, “it will get easier”, but by challenging yourself and all of us to push things forward. You really quantify that teaching is a craft and the profession and students will miss that while you go back to school.
    I think it is an excellent question to pursue for a PHD. I hope you keep on blogging Dan.

  11. Thanks for all your posts. You’re ideas are inspired and always interesting. It’s a shame you’ll be leaving the classroom, but I hope that with your new path, you’re able to influence more teachers, and through them, more kids.

  12. I don’t know if you’re sick of hearing it by now, but here’s another thank you for all you’ve contributed to my professional development…
    Also, I’m curious to see if it’s a challenge for you to go from a very hands-on gig to being a first year doctoral student.
    Best of luck though, you’re classroom anecdotes will be sorely missed

  13. @Adam, my doctorate will be in education.

    @sylvia, I think that blogging regularly has made the writing demands of a doctoral program seem a little less insane. I’m fairly certain, also, that blogging shortened my professional growth curve by a few years, allowing me to iterate my ideas quickly, in front of thousands of people, absorbing lots of criticism and pushing through failure in a way that simply isn’t otherwise possible teaching math in a department of six teachers in a rural unified school district. Without blogging, maybe I would have made this move five years from now. Or maybe never, I don’t know.

    (A blogger wrote one my letters of recommendation, also, for whatever that’s worth to your question.)

    I can only echo – not refute – a lot of other commenters’ concerns that this move will make me less relevant to student achievement, not more, that this blog will become a lot less interesting in the years upcoming.

    Jury’s still out. I can only state that, right now, I have little enthusiasm for a tenure track job, a job writing papers for other people who write papers. If I can no longer draw even a wobbly line between my work and how students learn, then I’ll quit. My word on that.

  14. For the entirety of the two years I’ve been teaching I’ve read, discussed, and thought about ideas brought up here more than anywhere else, except maybe my own classroom. Your work here’s been very valuable to me and pushed my thinking. Best of luck on the next journey.

  15. Dan, these are huge news. Congratulations on joining a graduate program! PhD can be such an adventure when you enter it from already-reflective practice.

    Santa Cruz is a fine place to be. Have you thought of a general area of research?

    It is interesting that you mentioned blogging as preparatory work. It goes beyond writing. For example, I can definitely trace ways I put together contradictory theories into a cohesive framework back to mediating several huge flamewars among several hundreds early childhood and parenting communities and individual bloggers, who’d come to my (no longer functioning) parenting and education blog as their “neutral territory” for communication.

  16. Dan, my first instinct is to say that this is bad news. For the future students who won’t have you in class, your colleagues, and readers/posters who look to you for direction in small to larger ways.

    Then it hit me. I do not know you personally (though as department chair of our math department of 13 teachers I almost offered you a job last summer sight unseen here on the right coast, until your wife got a good gig…), but I am convinced if anyone can get into an Ed. Doc and actually make significant change in education, my money’s on you. Most go into it because the don’t have what it takes in the clasroom. Your insight, (for such a young one…sorry…) is truly humbling and inspiring at the same time. I can’t help but ponder what your take on education will be once you take that natural insight, combine it with “What Just Happened,” your gift for understanding how to communicate with students through media, and enhance that with higher-ed classes. You really have stumbled upon something that has lit a fire under me, and I am trying my damndest to influence my department with it.

    Best of luck to you and yours. I am sure that though in the short run we will as readers suffer, the end game will be richer and more useful and most importantly, more rewarding for you. Good luck in doing what many of us cannot or are unwilling to do.

    To quote Jimmy Buffett “Some are fine as oysters, while some become pearls…”

  17. Congratulations! Hope you keep writing as you do your research – maybe that can help counteract that crippling sense of isolation and futility that so often goes with grad school.

    I’ve learned so much from reading this blog, and your assessment system has solved so many problems. Thank you so much!

  18. Thanks for making me a better math teacher. This blog has truly been a source of inspiration for me. Good luck.

  19. I think this blog was a hub for many interesting discussions, mathed and otherwise. When I log in to google reader, this is one of the first blogs I check. There are countless posts where you took something that appears mundane and made a gem of the subject matter. The discussion on powerpoint slides for admissions. The “what can you do with this?” series of posts. Reading your blog is like watching Susan Boyle, I often end up with a pleasant surprise.

    I think there are many readers who feel that without this blog they would’ve ended up a very different teacher. I’m one of them. I’m a new teacher in a school where there is very little support. With the advice and help that I was getting I felt like I was engaging in defensive teaching. I know I was doing things that didn’t upset the administration, the math department, and the parents. But I felt that I was becoming the teacher that I didn’t like as a student, one that I wouldn’t wish on my kids or anyone else’s kids. The learning I do reading blogs, this one in particular, has far surpassed what I’m getting in PD and BTSA, though I think I barely scratched the surface.

    Know that you’ve helped more students than the ones you see in your classroom. I wish you luck in your new endeavor and the fortune to be in a place to effect change.

  20. Christian Long

    June 21, 2009 - 10:08 pm -

    A really fantastic post to read, my friend. While the hints and compass-rewiring were always there, there is a clarity to your decision now that makes a great deal of sense. Enjoy the transition. And what follows.

  21. I grieve for the students who will not know you as their teacher.

    I remember that you have blogged often about the bathetic sensibilities of “doing it for the kids,” and have argued passionately that this is not why you entered the profession.

    And I challenge you, nonetheless, to consider the notion that your degree will mean nothing unless you find a way to get back to them– the kids– somehow.

    Good luck.

  22. Congratulations! I have lurked a little on your blog. I think you have the experience and especially the intuition and drive to have a huge impact on education.

    Although these are my biases, I think you can benefit from looking into Self Determination Theory (http://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/) as it fits in with what I see in your posts. It will give you a theoretical framework, necessary in a PhD program, with a lot of research to back it. Here is the first line of an article by Ryan and Deci, ”Human beings can be proactive and engaged or, alternatively, passive and alienated, largely as a function of the social conditions in which they develop and function.” Your approach seems to be largely about finding ways to keep students “proactive and engaged” rather than “passive and alienated” in the classroom.

    In a more recent post you wrote:
    “This math thing is easier to approach if I ask myself, what about this concept is useful, interesting, essential, or satisfying, and then work backward along that vector, rather than working toward it from a disjoint set of scattered skills. There is probably a book I should read somewhere in all of this.”

    Try Vygotsky and his followers who have applied his theory to math education. One of his principles is that cognitive development occurs when a problem is encountered for which previous methods of solution are inadequate. Their lessons stretch the students minds by creating a need for a new way of understanding.

    Wish you the Best.

  23. Do it while you are young, and before the kids arrive. Although I have read little here this year (waaaay too much math for me), I enjoy checking in every so often to see what you are up to.

    Best wishes from a teacher who has done all those things you listed at the beginning of the post.

  24. Good luck Dan. Having just poked my head into higher education (and after just two weeks I must say I am simultaneously overwhelmed and excited beyond all expectations), I hope you continue to participate online in some fashion. Your thoughts, while not always directly relevant to me in a different discipline and school context, have always challenged me. Thanks for that.