The Unengageables, Ctd.

It’s like reading a survey of firefighters in which, when asked about the greatest limitation on how they fight fires, 38.79% responded “all the fires” and 23.56% responded “being a first responder.”


See those top two are part of doing your job, not an impediment to it. Even better, while the firefighters have no influence over the number of fires they fight, teachers have plenty of influence over a student’s interest in mathematics.

[via Chris Shore]


2013 Jul 11. The Wire’s Lester Freamon:

Detective, this right here, this is the job. Now, when you came downtown, what kind of work were you expecting?

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. The question is an interesting one. It is, in itself, limited.

    But more than that, I’m struck by (what I think) you are pointing out — that teachers limit themselves based on either how students react to what they have already done (T: “I can’t have them work on the ‘fun’ stuff because the kids haven’t done the basics.”) or by what they ASSUME students will do (T: “Can’t have them work in groups because some kids would slide on their groupmates’ coattails, or keep the work from getting done.”). Either way, viewing lack of interest and disruption as limitations highlights a teacher’s reactive mindset. Which often makes us strip curriculum. Fascinating.

  2. Striving to turn around that uninterested or disruptive student is half the fun of teaching. I think the list of choices should include pressure of testing, length of class period, size of class.

    Also, on a side note, not sure if you’ve heard, but there is a firefighter arson problem. Seriously.

  3. Just because something is part of your job doesn’t imply that it is the part of your job that you enjoy or are good at.

    Certainly it is a teachers responsibility to get kids interested in math. But that is mostly because our current system is based on coercion.

    Agree with it or not, we have to admit that we simply force kids to take math. Kids often express their independence by rejecting things they are forced to do, like math. Dealing with this is not always fun.

    So, yeah, the fact that everyone has to take math regardless of what they want makes the job of teaching math harder.

  4. Two worries with the poll:

    1. This poll was multiple choice. What it’s really like is 38.79% of firefighters saying that “all the fires” is a bigger problem than “house layouts,” “lack of community support,” “not enough hoses” and “tough fires.”

    2. “Teach” is the difficult word there. Most people only associate the word “teach” with the actual (oh god I’m saying this phrase) delivery of content. I’d want to see the results of a poll that asked “Which of the following poses the greatest limitations on your classroom living up to its potential.” Or something.

  5. I actually think it might be worth pointing out that there are a whole wack of teachers who didn’t sign up for this.

    *Now, my experience may be wildly different than that of many as teaching degrees work differently here in Canada.*

    There is a large (albeit getting smaller) portion of mathematics teachers who signed up specifically because math *was* exactly what we’re all hoping it’s not anymore. They enjoy/enjoyed teacher math because it was a show steps, have students do practice problems kind of arrangement. They are good helpers. They are really good at explaining things. They may have received an entire university degree in mathematics teaching that encouraged both of these things. They almost certainly had an internship experience that encouraged and nurtured their ability to explain to others, maybe even in different ways. Large portions of their colleagues shared their magic binders, exams, practice sheets and all was quite well in their version of teaching mathematics land.

    Now someone has changed the game on them. And admittedly, that someone has been trying to change the game for a rather long time had the teachers in questions been paying close attention. However, we’ve still changed the game on them. I think frustration for a whole multitude of reasons is understandable here. I also think, if you are one of these folks, it’s a lot easier to blame the kids than face the fact that you’re the problem, your job is maybe the problem, and you’re not too sure what to do about it.

    I have a lot of faith that these folks, the non militant ones anyway, will come around. That they will keep trying, overhear conversations from a different set of colleagues, and start being able to find a space where they are able to affect the change they’re currently pretending to want to see. Because, even the teachers who blame the kids for their problems still, for the most part, genuinely want to help those kids be better. They’re just a little stuck on the how.

  6. i consider myself a stand up comedienne and a math teacher. i will do just about anything to keep the 6th graders engaged and excited.
    BUT… and it’s a big but… my biggest limitation is getting kids to CARE.
    to truly care about doing well in not only math, but in all areas of their lives.
    many of the survey answers relate to this issue of CARING about doing a good job and being successful in all endeavors.
    i have 8 minutes to get my free Slurpee.

  7. Every kid has to take every subject. Every kid has to go to school period. That doesn’t make any teacher’s job harder. It is what we do.

    Most teachers gravitate towards students who are “subject lovers” or “teacher pleasers”. Those kids are easier to teach. It is not easy to teach those that are disinterested because you have to go outside of your comfort zone to reach them…to go where they are…to bring experiences that will hopefully get them interested in what they learn.

    The measurement that sticks out for me is the one with students with diverse academic abilities. Sadly, the perception that we can teach just one way, and not change or adjust to others…again depending on learners is ridiculous.

    It’s a belief issue that needs the adjustment….Period

    No wonder that kids aren’t interested

  8. You are assuming that teachers are complaining about behaviors that they observe in their classrooms, but the teachers with the engaged and well-behaved students achieve that precisely by being aware of what their students will find so interesting that it never occurs to them to disrupt the class.

    The question framed it as a limitation so it sounds like teachers are complaining. If the question asked, “What is the most important factor in teaching mathematics?” and the choices were “Getting students interested,” “Activities that engage students so they are not disruptive,” “Differentiation,” “Involving parents,” “Exploiting resources,” and “Reaching students with special needs,” and the results matched up, would you still be so surprised?

  9. I’m afraid I disagree with your analogy here Dan. Students being uninterested is more like “the variety of fires”. It’s the idea that the firefighters simply can’t tackle (for example) an electrical fire with water or foam. The amount of techniques they have available for tackling that fire is limited. Of course it’s their job to navigate around that, but that’s going beyond the scope of the question, if you take it literally.

    By the same token, there are some classes that simply don’t respond well to certain activities. The disinterest of the students does limit the techniques we have available to teach a class. It is our job to work out what techniques are effective, and to work around the ones that aren’t. As before though, that is beyond the scope of the question if you take it literally.

  10. @Brian:
    what their students will find so interesting that it never occurs to them to disrupt the class.

    I want to be really careful with this statement here. Even the most engaging class possible will have disruptive students sometimes; maybe they got into a fight with a student at lunch they want to take into the classroom; maybe they have oppositional disorder; maybe they are having a difficult time at home and need to lash out.

    I remember being told the above statement and thinking somehow that the students would be perfect little angels as long as my lessons were interesting enough. Look, new teachers: stuff is gonna happen. Even if you’re doing the most awe-inspiring lesson imaginable, it may just be the same day students X just stole student Y’s boyfriend and your period is the last opportunity before the weekend to get revenge.

  11. The argument here seems to be that since the reality of being a math teacher necessitates figuring out how to deal with uninterested and disruptive students, it’s wrong for teachers to see those things as an impediment to, rather than a requirement of, the job.

    But that argument applies to all the items on the list. Which suggests to me that the problem is with how the question is phrased and interpreted.

  12. Actually, firefighters do have influence over the number of fires they fight. Their community information and preventative programs have surely reduced the number of fires they see. Well, at least I would hope so… Hmmm, I smell a math problem smoldering!

  13. I’m with Michael. I was trying to decide if I was forced to vote, which choice I would choose.

    I decided… I don’t like the choices. Or maybe it’s the question I don’t like. I do, however, like Michael’s question.

  14. It seems that each of the factors listed are part of doing the job, not just the top two.

  15. If it helps anybody see where I’m coming from, had the question been posed as “what’s hard about your job?” and the response posed as “getting kids interested in math,” I’d be totally unperturbed.

    That is hard. But it is within a teacher’s locus of control. By contrast, “compulsory schooling” or “compulsory standards” or “lack of teaching resources” are largely outside a teacher’s control and fair game for griping, as far as I’m concerned.

    Lots of you take exception to the hamfisted phrasing of the question and the fact that it’s multiple choice and the fact that the multiple choice options are kind of hamfistedly selected. I’m with you there. I’m frustrated that NCTM has outsourced its daily math newsletter to a team with only a passing familiarity with math education (this SmartBrief outfit). I unsubscribed after it became clear that team was just transcribing whatever press releases or Google Alerts dropped into their email box the day before. But they’re also endorsing pedagogical techniques uncritically (like the flipped classroom) and now constructing bizarre surveys (like this) all under the NCTM imprint. That’s rough.

  16. Like many of my students taking a multiple choice test I re-read the question numerous times, I read your comments, then I went and read the question again. The word that stands out to me is LIMITS. I am with Dan but from a different stand point. My noisy kids, distracted kids, uninterested kids, and students with a diverse academic background force me to create numerous ways to teach them content. This is far from limiting. We live in the world of internet, resources are abundant, and while I have limited parental involvement, I have had to become more creative in how I assign practice work, again not limiting in any way.

    What does limit me is budget, time, and sometimes energy!

  17. The greatest limitation has nothing to do with the kids. It has to do with the environment in which teachers and students work. An environment in which there is a bell and a quarter or semester and content a teacher feels they must cover. Our job is working with students as they come. They are a function of what the system has created and I must make that experience better. As Dr. Jo Boaler has explained in her course “How to Learn Math”, a teacher’s job is to disrupt the trajectory of students who have not had a successful experience.