Guilt Is The New Merit Pay


We’ve lost another good math teacher, that’s what’s wrong. [..] I know everybody wants to be the big cheese and be the big hero. But what we need is teachers, not more professors, advocates, rabble-rousers, or whatever.

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. It’s a question of the commutative property, really: does large(small) = small(large)?

    As a teacher, you have a huge impact on a relatively small number of people. Certainly over these next few years, Dan–and any teacher-turned-PhD-candidate, I imagine–may struggle with the distance and the absence of immediacy. But if he emerges as a true leader in how teachers think about teaching (which I think he will), then won’t his net impact be just as large…if not larger?

    I can understand Jimmy’s angst, and wouldn’t it be great if every teacher were as good as…not just Dan, but everyone inspired enough to be reading this blog? But we’re not there yet. And so in the meantime, we absolutely *do* need folks to go learn whatever it is that they have to learn–to take classes that start with EDUC, to rent cheap cars and stay in cheap hotels–in order to turn this thing around.

    Personally, I’m not too worried about the silo effect with this guy. And besides, if the rabble needs rousing…

  2. So… I get the whole “larger impact thing.” But unless Dan and his ilk are going to find a way to convince the powers-that-be to completely retool the “standard” math curriculum from about grade 3 on (a la Lockhart’s Lament) then I just don’t see what they are going to achieve.

    Small dents? To what end? Convince a few teachers or districts to try SBG? Spread the word about WCYDWT? He was already doing that! To great impact, whether he knew it or not. I teach Physics and I’m changing what I do daily, primarily based on his and others inspiration and example. But I’m not going to be listening to some PhD guy from some place. And honestly, I don’t have a single Science teacher in my dept. who went through Ed. school. Can’t seem to find one.

    it’s not angst. It’s anger. I see too many folks who want to “make a difference.” But it’s not enough to be a teacher. That’s too small. They have to get the PhD, be a leader, be an “advocate” for Science, be a whatever. Well, yay for personal ambition. But it’s sad for the students. Cause we don’t need more of that. We’ve got too much of that! We need more good teachers. Especially ones who’ll go to TED and show off how awesome we can be.

    I wish Dan the best and am grateful for his contribution so far. I’m sad that the best of us are not content to plug away and do our jobs.

  3. PS I feel really guilty because even though I’ve never met the fella I really like Dan and this is his blog and I want him to be happy in his pursuits. And I’m harshing on his vibe. Sorry Dan.

    But this has been simmering in me for years, watching the best leave and go. Which maybe reflects an even larger systematic problem even than what we’re talking about. The best want more and don’t feel that the day to day is enough reward (and lord knows many days it’s not.)

    Maybe if Dan ran for President, and promised to fix that, then I’d be okay with it.

  4. For what it is worth, I left a PhD program to become a teacher. I realized that none of the professors had ever been a teacher and yet they were continuing to give advice on what teachers can and should do.

    Perhaps someone like Dan can better Schools of Education by providing some realistic perspective.

  5. Jimmy-

    I entirely agree with the start of your second paragraph. The impact Dan had through this blog is far greater than most ED-PhD’s I’ve encountered in my decade of teaching. But there seems to be a sentiment underlying your argument that Dan won’t learn anything in this program, or develop any new techniques or insights, over and above what would have “naturally” happened in N more years of classroom teaching.

    This is a fact-less discussion about alternate future histories, so I’ll try to keep it brief. But even if I spot you the notion that ground level classroom practice won’t see significant improvement through a PhD program, that still leaves the potential for improvement in this, his professional development practice.

    You seem to distrust the entire concept of Ed school, a sentiment that I can sympathize with and sometimes share. But while I also don’t have faith that culinary school will make everyone in to great chefs, I’m confident that talented cooks who want to expand their techniques will always find a way to make the process support their goals.

  6. Jimmy, maybe the real issue is that a system that tries to keep good teachers is the same one that pushes or keeps good teachers out. Maybe being good doesn’t fit in the Government designed structure of teaching and learning.

    In my experience, state law and local administrators can sometimes be inflexible to new ideas or teaching methods, even if it is research based. This frustrates me and makes me want to go somewhere that will allow me to teach to the student, not some scripted curriculum, as it is the case in some schools.

    The system does need some refining. We can legislate it and change it from within. The later is what I think you are hoping for.

  7. >Small dents? To what end? Convince a few teachers or districts to try SBG? Spread the word about WCYDWT? He was already doing that! To great impact, whether he knew it or not. I teach Physics and I’m changing what I do daily, primarily based on his and others inspiration and example. But I’m not going to be listening to some PhD guy from some place.<

    I agree with Jimmy…except that I am currently studying for my PhD as well. But I am determined to, even as I hope to teach teachers, to teach AT LEAST one class every semester that is a) non-honors and b) with at-risk kids in c) a public (not cherry-picked) school. My family/friends thinks that's a "waste of a PhD" but I know that I can't truly effect change without the "street cred" that gives me with teachers.

    Because when an "expert" out of the classroom for 10 years tells me what to do, I take their advice with much more cynicism than the advice of the teacher down the hall.

    This is not just a "kids have changed since you…" because kids have ALWAYS changed and kids have ALWAYS stayed the same. Its because memory is a sly thing, and its easy to "remember" that your strategies worked (or even to remember using them when in fact you never did in your own classroom!!!) But when Diane down the hall says "I tried this last week with the same population" I feel less worried about falling behind or a chaotic, destroyed classroom.

    Like I said, its not just a "kids have changed" thing. Its that if I try something in my class and it fails spectacularly (as it sometimes does) the effects sometimes last for a WEEK. The mood and respect has shifted and I'm screwed for several days.

    I don't always feel like I can afford that risk.

    And I don't always feel I can afford to listen to the guy getting paid to talk and NOT teach, while I'm PAYING to listen and then go back and try it.

    So "Be the difference you want to see in the world" "An example is worth a 1,000 words" and [insert 20 other cliches here].

    Every year someone's out of teaching, they're losing chances to convince a teacher to risk change.

  8. I fully support Dan’s move to a PhD program (I mean, its hard not to, right? Its his life). But as a recent grad from a School of Ed, I have relied heavily on his blog to shape my teaching, classroom management, etc.

    Wouldn’t it have been great to get that kind of training in college?!

    We’re crazy if we think that schools across the country are going to see significant reform in curriculum, classroom management, instruction, etc. unless our very best are in positions to train teacher candidates from the ground up. At the same time, I understand the frustration of knowing that students who would have been in Dan’s classroom won’t be.

    But, I have to think Dan has left some great tips for the guy/girl in that position. And, I think we are going to start seeing more teachers like Dan, because the ability to collaborate, share, and grow as teachers is easier now that ever before. Example #1: this blog.

  9. Thanks for that second response, Jimmy. I know I often feel a similar unease when discussing larger issues through the lens of a stranger’s life.

    With that caveat, I think Drew’s (#8) got the heart of it. I would incredibly excited to have someone like Dan (or Shawn or Sam Shah or Kate, or any one of the new math teachers we hired this year who read the above) in a position to direct curriculum changes, or hiring practices, or new teacher training, or almost any school/district wide program in 2015.

    In public and independent schools, teachers go through programs every year to “get the paper” necessary for their next step. All too often, those are the teachers who are running from the classroom, the ones least suited to productively lead a school, or help reshape a struggling district.

    I’m excited about a wave of Ed leaders who excel at both content and deliverance.

  10. Is it possible that we’re taking this a little too seriously, reading into Dan’s student status a little too much? Hopefully the fate of the American education system doesn’t hinge on one dude’s decision to get a PhD. And while I’ve never met him personally, I don’t imagine Dan–or anyone, for that matter–could long tolerate such a burden, or be happy under it.

    Jimmy, I hear you, man. It’s a bummer when good teachers leave the classroom. But you gotta have some faith. You’re probably an awesome physics teacher. Next year you’ll be better, and the next year, and the next. Is that going to change because Dan changed his zip code?

    I know you were writing a bit from emotion. All of us, maybe, and that we’re all a bit hyperbolic. Thing is, at the end of the day, I’m doing my thing, you’re doing yours, Dan’s doing his. That’s great, and not so fragile, either.

  11. As a math educator who also spent 5 yrs in the middle school classroom, I’m thrilled to have Dan join me. He has inspired this veteran teacher and truly seems to be the type of person who WILL keep kids at the forefront. I still believe that we college profs can make a difference. In my 25+ years in the math educ business, I’ve probably taught nearly a thousand students. When I’ve seen them around town over the years, I often hear “I still keep the notebook from your class on my desk.” It’s a small thing, but it keeps me going in spite of all the administrative hoops that education programs must currently jump through. I’m just happy to be in a MATH department.

    And a had a blast teaching a guest lesson to two classes of 4th graders last Friday!

  12. I find Sarah’s post to be on the mark. The likelihood of someone with no teaching experience being knowledgeably helpful to teachers is pretty slim, and getting skinnier as the atmosphere in which we teach grows uglier. In my district we have a new “leader” with a doctorate in math leadership – some good ideas but no grounding in classroom reality. So Dan’s fundamental ratio is almost always strained. The profession needs some people in those places who not only have teaching experience, but were not running away from the classroom when they moved on. I trust and admire that Dan is still greatly motivated by the teaching aspects.
    In a former position I read and benefited from a scholarly monthly for teachers, with articles often written by teachers for teachers, and a change in editorial leadership turned it into a publication full of articles written by university researchers for each other – no content any more for practitioners like me. Too much education fare falls into the same category. I will look look forward to reading what Dan has to say because I know where his work is grounded – in the classroom with the kids who inhabit it.

  13. Woah! I find the discussion of whether Dan should or shouldn’t have gone to a PhD program incredibly off-putting. Dude, it’s his life, his decision, his call. He’s not some national resource. He doesn’t owe any obligation to you. To the extent that he does something positive for you, praise it. But the fact that he’s done so much positive for you in the past doesn’t create any obligation for him to continue doing so in the future. I get that you’re saddened to hear of Dan’s new position. But calling Dan out for that is uncalled for.

    I would call for more reflection on the structural effects of the educational system, and less personal attacks on the ethics of individual teachers who have/haven’t left the system. One of the blindingly obvious, gaping holes of the current education system is that it does not provide much of a track for advancement, does not have the capacity for recognition of great teaching, does not offer significant financial incentives for significant contributions to education. The whole system is set up to maximize scale and quantity, not for excellence in teaching.

  14. It is definitely his choice, and I hope he can go and change education so that the new crops of good teachers will want to keep teaching, and feel like they’re appreciated and making enough of a difference doing that.

  15. I’m not 100% on this, but I feel like if we turned the entire teaching system into a giant Game Theoretic matrix, it would show that those of us who care about how we teach and strive to improve the education that we are a part of are not acting rationally. Working extra hours for the same pay as someone who merely skating by. Learning and advancing our craft without reward, and often to the detriment of other parts of our lives.

    Of course, I think that most of us are probably looking at a different set of rewards than money.

    Either way, I’m very happy that someone like Dan is out there changing the game. Someone who can see why the game needs to change, rather than just pushing the same old strategies.

    Go team!

  16. But where Dan is going, he will be a teacher generator. He can help midhusband, nourish and develop a whole bunch of excellent new teachers. Also, he may create systemic changes that will promote better teaching.

    It takes a while to integrate theory and practice, so we need to be patient with people going through it. The effort is worth it in many cases. I have a lot of confidence in Dan doing it right.

  17. Have you had coffee with Dan? Have you ever physically seen him manifest before you? No? OK, then Dan gets to have his life and pursue a Ph.D (Let’s recap: it’s a sacrifice/honor to do this.) and we don’t get to be upset about it.

    So you have had coffee with Dan? Great. I hope you enjoyed the brew in front of his cherub face. OK, then Dan gets to do this, and we get to cheer him on.

    Dan can sharpen his tools, gain some clout, and advance his clarion call about changing, reforming, (insert newest jargon that means “change”), and advancing what he does well.

    And WE get to benefit by learning what he learns. Just think, we get to sit back and benefit from him synthesizing m@#)($&*ing Stanford.

    I mean, shouldn’t we help him pay for his books? Or at least a Thank You Hallmark Card?

  18. I fully support Dan’s move to a PhD program (I mean, its hard not to, right? Its his life). But as a recent grad from a School of Ed, I have relied heavily on his blog to shape my teaching, classroom management, etc.

    Wouldn’t it have been great to get that kind of training in college?!

    How will you get that kind of training in college unless people like Dan with Dan’s ideas, drive, ambition and enthusiasm get PhDs and start teaching in college? Get PhDs and start doing research and publishing. Get PhDs and get on the radar of the people who make decisions at a higher level.

    Jimmy says he followed Dan’s blog “but I’m not going to be listening to some PhD guy from some place.” I assume that’s because those PhD guys aren’t bringing to the table what Dan has been – I’d hate to think an educator is engaging in a bias against formal education – but isn’t the solution to get more people in that level who are innovating?

    Shortly after Dan’s TED talk I sent it to several people I knew and said that I’d punch my momma* to guarantee I’d get a teacher like him for my children-to-be. But asking him or anyone like him to stay in a position when they feel another one calling to them is counter-productive for both the kids and for the other people he’ll touch in the next step of his journey.

    * I would not, in fact, punch my momma

  19. i love the role model of a teacher becoming a student.
    ed needs that more than anything right now.

    with Dan’s transparency and his advocacy to be patient with irresolution and to be less helpful…
    dang – i can hardly wait to see how this plays out.

  20. Jimmy, perhaps the reason you are feeling the loss is because you don’t know who will fill you “Dan Gap”. The thing is – you need to fill it. I’ve been a long time follower, but this is my first post.

    Jimmy needs to take what Dan taught us and run with it THEN share with the rest of us. I would love to see Jimmy’s most WCYDWT project.

    Just to prove I’m not a hypocrite: Here is mine –
    I used this for a lesson on place value (Grade 6)

    Best of luck Dan.

    PS Wish I could make it to your Calgary session. I’ve been preaching the word and have some convinced.

  21. I agree with Michael (#6). My students’ growth was the highest in the department, yet I was the one who lost my job. The administration wanted to see test scores go up, but had no plan for achieving this. You can’t effect change in a vacuum and we need people in positions of leadership that administrators will listen to.

  22. Every time an effective teacher leaves the classroom to become a PhD student, math coach, administrator, curriculum developer, consultant, and on and on, it shines a light on a fundamental problem when the “reformers” talk about teacher quality. There is no career path in our profession that actually keeps teachers in the classroom, and it is a big part of the reason the profession can’t really attract/retain a large cadre of ambitious people into the profession (in comparison say to law).

    Also, the notion that teachers should be evaluated on the basis of their students’ performance on a standardized test (the education equivalent of working on commission) is actually going to make the profession even less attractive to the very kind of people who can truly make a difference in the classroom.

  23. It’s got to be at least a little bit humbling, Dan, for all these people to have a concern about what you’re doing. Me, for one, I couldn’t care less. Just like I didn’t give a damn whether or not LeBron James stayed in Cleveland. I’ve got enough to worry about, with my 150 students and our new school getting up and running and taking care of my wife and daughter and my mother-in-law battling cancer and…well, you understand.

    So I look at it this way. If you want to get your doctorate Dan, go get it. If you want to walk the earth like Cain, go walk it. What do I care? It’s your life, enjoy it as you please.

    But you do owe me something. For a few years now you’ve inspired me and challenged me and made me a better educator. You’ve helped me….out of sheer generosity and your own personal desire to improve. You didn’t know me when you started your blog and you barely know me now. But you still made me better. And for that I thank you.

    And you owe me a “you’re welcome”. :)

    Go get ’em dude.

  24. Too all comments: the fact that there are 23 people here to weigh in tells me that at least 23 other people in the world are looking for collaboration in math. That makes me hopeful. I would like to propose a WCYDWT data base. I have a few lessons i’d like to add in exchange for all of the wonderful ideas Dan put out there.

    It’s late. I’m tired. Math class needs a makeover. Patience is a virtue. I would like a nasal spray that allows people to feel empathy. I predict that every one of my students choices will alter my future.

    My university professor’s words of encouragement that “a teacher can care, but still be a terrible teacher” makes me doubt my every move and is why I am awake right now.


  25. Been reading blog from a far because I’ve been considering a transition from engineer/consultant to teaching math for a while. It’s been hard to commit when confronted with money needed to attend school, then take a huge pay cut for more work, and then struggle to find a job. Been easier teaching at community colleges and University of Phoenix part time. I’ve enjoyed reaching this and others for inspiration so that I may one day make the transition. Can’t say I would fault you leaving to pursue PhD — it may be a big loss directly to the classroom, but it sounds as if you’re committed to still making even bigger changes in ed policy in the future. My $.02 — more incentives and easier path to get mid-career math/science professionals into classroom. Best of luck!

  26. I got half way through the Ed PhD and decided it was not for me. Mostly it was the profs I was taking classes from that decided me. Their teaching experience in K-12 was almost zero; their concept of how kids behave in class had to have come from observing or teaching honors classes. This pattern of out-of-touch Ed profs has been consistent throughout my education career. Having experienced teachers like Dan going to the dark side I think in the long run is going to be a great advantage to teachers and kids.

  27. Dan,
    Its not the dark side. Its self-improvement or reflective practise. Enjoy… (and don’t let anyone take away from that). I can see that you love to learn and thats what you’re doing….

  28. Jimmy, your comments make sense to me.
    The appeal of Dan’s message comes from the very fact that he practises what he preaches. It concerns me that in the future, he might be preaching something he used to do. It is no secret that you perfect the craft of teaching by teaching! It still is the teachers’ voice I respect and it is a perfect world when the researcher is the teacher.

  29. I think one of the reasons I continue to read this blog is because of the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the responses. I learn as much from Dan’s original posts as from the well-reasoned reflections on them. Dan in my mind, however, has everyone here beat on reflecting: I rarely have met practitioners who have his ability to reflect deeply on what he’s doing and the impact he is having. So, for that reason, I have little worries that Dan will end up teaching theories to new teachers that have no connection in reality, either now or X number of years after he’s been training new teachers. If something he espouses for his teachers to do doesn’t work in the future, be it even cornerstones such as SBG and WCYDWT, Dan will probably be the first to realize it and will figure out how to make his teaching relevant again.

    I think a question I’d throw out to Jimmy, and to others who have changed their practices because of Dan’s insights, is “How do you know whether there are any other current practices of yours that need to change?” Because if the improvement of your practice is solely dependent on Dan pointing out specific areas to change, rather than from Dan AND your own self-reflections, than you’re in trouble. And so are your students.

  30. I’m glad Dan is getting a PhD. That way when he writes his reforming book for the masses (because you’re going to, right? eventually?), he has the experience AND the education to back up what he says.

  31. When my mother left the math classroom to move into administration, she faced the same choices and concerns. She was (according to her colleagues and my friends who were her students) an exemplary teacher. Later, she became (according to people throughout the school system) an exemplary administrator. She went from impacting 125 students a year to impacting schools with thousands of students. She turned two schools from completely dysfunctional institutions with teachers who were not empowered to make change into great, innovative schools.

    This same sort of thing can apply to researchers. I know it’s easy to focus on the 125 kids each year, but we also need to have great teachers who can help create, support, and inspire leagues of other teachers and administrators. I have worked with teachers and administrators from around the country and have seen the value of great leaders and the cost of poor ones.

    Don’t discount the value of leadership.

    In short, I lament losing Dan from the classroom, but believe it will be for the greater good if he keeps fighting the good fight.

    And from another perspective, I think everyone should heed Joseph Campbell’s advice: “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”