As usual, going to Twitter Math Camp has caused me to be all reflective and stuff. Barf. About myself and about this online community. And trust me, this self-introspection will be over soon and I’ll be back on my regularly scheduled program of procrastinating doing my prep work for school. But I should probably get it all out first, in one giant word-vomit. Ready? SPEW!
I’m a Hobbit
To begin with, an oft retweeted and favorited thing at TMC was this (and heck, I probably retweeted and favorited it):
I strongly don’t put myself in that category. That isn’t part of who I am. I don’t teach to save the world. I don’t see myself as changing students’s lives, nor is my goal to have students come back to me and say “your class changed my life.” I don’t blog to change math teaching. I don’t have grand ambitions or even care to think on such a large scale. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s just not me. I’m like a hobbit, happy and content with my little corner. Working at things with a small scale. Getting an ah hah moment, or altering the way a student sees and understands mathematics, or helping a fellow teacher out with this or that. This is what I enjoy doing.
Inadequacy and Change
With that said, a lot of my thoughts around the mathtwitterblogosphere (MTBoS) and TMC in particular have come out of two things:
1. A post by Mo titled “I am a fraud” and as a follow up a post by Lisa Henry titled “Hi My Name is Lisa” which resonated with me and with many others. Some key lines:
Mo: They were so honest, so completely naked, and I, wanting to join in “fit in” offered some of my fears but then as I awoke today I feel dirty. My heart is heavy, because I lied. Well I didn’t completely lie I just shared certain fears and strengths that manipulated people to see me the way I wanted them to see me. We were all skinny dipping but I had a flesh colored bathing suit on “with painted on abs”… And as I enter my 9th year of teaching, I could be entering my last year. There is a high possibility that I could be going into sales and this conference confirms my movement into that field, because I feel so inadequate….. so beyond inadequate.
Lisa: I am not the best math teacher. I am not an amazing math teacher. I have a LOT of work to do to improve. There. I said it. I wrote it in my blog and I am not taking it back. It is there in print. Ever since I have been involved with the Math Twitterblogosphere (MTBoS for short if you are not familiar), I have felt this inadequacy. I see what other teachers are doing in their classrooms. I have tried some things. Even blogged about what I have tried. But for the most part, I haven’t changed a whole lot in my teaching since I started Twitter almost 5 years ago.
2. A flex session held by Lisa Bejarano which was about how we leave TMC and change things — both in ourselves, and in our schools. I have personal notions about barriers involved changing things in my school, nor do I have the presumptuousness to say that I am The Person To Effect Change or that I Know The Right Ways. Because I too feel very much like Mo and Lisa in that I’m not “there” yet. I’m not a master teacher. However when it came to our discussion of how we change things in ourselves, Lisa B. threw up this great chart on the projector:
At first, I was skeptical. I have this bad habit of seeing charts like this and immediately dismissing them. They take something complex and box it in to something simple. But you know, the more I thought and looked at it, the more it made sense to me.
For example, I’m teaching geometry next year, and I have tons of resources, a vision for what I want the course to look like, I think I have the skills needed, I have the motivation/incentives to do well. But I don’t have a way to go through the massive amounts of ideas and resources to actually move forward. I don’t have an action plan. So I’m in the middle of false starts. And it feels that way.
But what I want to focus on is missing skills — and the resulting anxiety. I was thinking about the times in my classroom when I didn’t just take a little step forward but dove right in to make a big change because I had a bigger vision I wanted to accomplish. I can think of two:
1. Implementing standards based grading in calculus (four years ago)
2. Running a class entirely through group-work (two years ago)
Although I advise people to take baby steps, and change slowly, those times I didn’t take that advice were the times I grew the most as a teacher. Those were also the times I felt the most anxiety. Why? Because I hadn’t yet developed the skills I needed. I didn’t know how to organize standards based grading in a way that would work. I didn’t know how to make sure I would catch the conceptual as well as the procedural in this system, nor how I would get synthesis of skills. I didn’t know how to make sure students worked well together. I didn’t know how to create actvities and lessons so that students would have to rely on each other to progress. But you know what? Without jumping in, I never would have gotten the skills needed.
Let me tell you: those were high anxiety times. They required a lot of emotional energy and a ton of time. But they were also times of immense growth for me.
Personal Inadequacy as Part-of-the-Deal
Now to the “me” part.
I don’t feel like I’m a master teacher or close to it. And I feel confident with that assessment of myself, because who knows me better than me?
As part of that, I also often feel inadequate, and sometimes like a fraud. If I look only at the world of my school, I think I wouldn’t feel this way. I’d feel fine. I’d actually have very little incentive to change, because it’s a lot of work for no extra rewards and I am doing well by the kids (see the chart above). But because there is this much bigger world, which I am exposed to (namely the math-twitter-blogosphere), things are different.
I am constantly exposed to many things online. A lot of them are resources and lessons, but sometimes there are ideas about good teaching that I wouldn’t have access too. Like the importance of mathematical discourse (talking, writing), or to question the nature of assessments and what grades mean, or the importance of having students see each other as mathematical authorities. I am not exposed to these ideas in my school constantly, so I would not think that these are things I believe in. But being bombarded by all the stuff out there online and at TMC, and seeing what resonates with me (or what inspires me to change), is helping me (probably subconsciously) evolve my personal, theoretical framework about teaching and learning (thanks Dan Meyer).
And that is where the anxiety comes in. Because now my bar about what is good teaching has been thrust upwards. And now I have to work on reaching it. It isn’t that I feel competitive with others, but that I feel competitive with myself . I have a drive to be my personal best, and to do the best by my kids.
So because of this exposure to great ideas for the classroom, and bigger ideas about what makes an effective classroom, I get caught up in feeling like I’m not doing a good job, and the anxiety hits me. And sometimes this nadir will last for months. I don’t feel like I’m doing a good enough job in the classroom. I haven’t given any formative assessments. Kids aren’t engaging in real mathematical discussion. I haven’t improved at all from the previous year. Heck, maybe I’ve even de-evolved. And I get in this cycle of anxiety. It sucks.
But it’s a double edged sword, because it is this anxiety that drives me, that pushes me. I enjoy the intellectual challenge it gives me. And at least for me, it’s this anxiety and this feeling of inadequacy, coupled with my own personal desire to better myself, that provides a productive tension. I recognize in myself that I need those lows and those feelings of anxiety in order to get better. It’s part of my own personal growth process. And as much as I wish I could be confident and grow without the feelings of inadequancy, I’ve come to realize that’s what works for me. At least for me.
I end with a tweet from Jami Danielle who pretty much summed this up for me, and makes this whole post just a bunch of verbal spewage (didn’t I say that at the beginning)?:
 I suspect, though I do not know, that all this talk about “inadequacy” and how it resonates with so many people in the MTBoS and at TMC is tied up in some sort of cycle like this. Because of this, I don’t think it’s something to be “fixed” (e.g. how can we make it so when people come to TMC they don’t feel like crappy teachers?). At least I wouldn’t want someone to “fix” it for me.