The Messiness of Trying Something New

It’s now more than halfway through the first quarter, and things are … messy.

I’m pretty much going through Calculus like I did last year, except for the fact that everything is so much easier because I have standards based grading down. [1] I know what works. While Calculus was hell for me first quarter last year, it’s cake for me now. So calculus is not messy. [2]

So while Calculus is going smoothly, I’m finding Algebra II to be messy. Not in terms of my kids. I love my Algebra II classes. But like last year — when I vowed to really focus on Calculus and leave my other courses well-enough alone — this year I vowed to focus on Algebra II and leave my other courses alone.

Specifically, I’m working on two major things: making groups and groupwork a norm, and having problem solving be a regular (and non-special) part of the curriculum. (As you can guess, the two go hand-in-hand.)

I haven’t written much about my inclusion of problem solving into the curriculum, but right now we’re doing a day of problem solving before each unit (related to the unit), I have slowly started including problem-solving problems in our home enjoyment (our supremely corny term for homework), I have been putting simple problem-solving problems on each assessment, and we so far have had a single problem set (something which I may or may not continue with). Still, I should be clear that most of my curriculum and my classes are traditional.

Now, if you’re a teacher who teaches more traditionally and uses a standard curriculum, you know that this a huge change. Because there’s a huge activation energy involved in switching teaching modes. For me, I kept on saying “next year, next year” and I never did. It’s daunting! And why screw around with something that works well?

And if you’re a teacher who teaches with lots of groupwork, and uses problem solving regularly, you probably remember the year you went through the transition. And how it got easier each subsequent year, as you picked up more tricks of the trade. Tacit knowledge.

And if you’re not a teacher, what the heck are you doing reading this blog? Seriously?!? GET OUTTA HERE!

Switching to this mode has played havoc with my emotions. You see, it’s not healthy and I try to avoid it, but my self-worth is tied up with how well I think I’m doing in the classroom. When I feel like I’m doing things well, I walk around like I own the world. I have confidence. My head is held high. And when I feel like I’m doing a poor job, my head hangs low. I question my desire to teach. I wonder what I’m doing in the classroom. And I’m depressed.

This year, I’m playing emotional ping-pong.

There are times when I feel like I’m killing it in Algebra II. These are usually days before each unit, where we spend the entire period working in groups and problem solving. I love watching kids think and discuss, and they’ve gotten how to work well in groups down. I’ve never had it work so seemlessly. It’s amazing. They’re independent. They’re identifying their own misconceptions and fixing them. I leave these classes wondering why it took me so long as a teacher to get to this point… I feel like my kids are finally and truly grappling, and I love that. (And I’m starting to do this successfully when we’re not problem solving… I made an “exponent lab” which was just 20 “simplify this” problems… and I was seeing great things when they worked together.)

And then there are times when I feel like I’m being killed. I have classes where I want to crawl under my desk and hide. Some of these classes happen the day after kids problem solve, and they present their solutions. Kids put their work on the board, or under the document projector, and present. Or if we don’t have time, I’ll have them put their work up, and I’ll talk through it. These classes have never worked for me. It’s like pulling teeth. Kids don’t know how to present. They don’t know how to engage if they’re in the audience. It takes forever. I don’t think anyone is getting much out of these days. [3] Or there are the more frequent regular classes (where we’re not doing problem solving), and I find I’m standing at the front of the classroom the entire class, cold calling and explaining. And it’s ugh. I feel ugh. There’s no spontaneity. It’s not fun. I don’t mix things up or have different ways of introducing/practicing material to break up class.

What’s interesting is that I feel my kids think that I’m doing a crappy job. I know they — in actuality — don’t think our classtime sucks. (I had my kids anonymously answer some questions, including the what two or three adjectives would you use to describe our classtime question.)

But even though intellectually I know that my kids don’t think I’m doing a crappy job teaching, it doesn’t change the fact that I feel they think I’m doing a crappy job teaching. It’s a slight distinction, but maybe others of you out there know what I’m talking about.

So as I said changing things is messy. Because you don’t know what works yet, and what doesn’t. It’s taking a risk. It requires more work. And you feel like you’re constantly flailing and failing. And that’s not a good feeling. Here’s a recent Facebook “convo”:

I know this is sort of rambling. I’m just trying to work through some things, but I still don’t know where things are going. Which is why there isn’t a real point to this. Just a state of affairs, from an emotional vantage point. I’m not looking for sympathy or advice. I just wanted to try to get my thoughts down — and just let you know that if you’re going through a similar transition, you’re not alone.

[1] I have a list of standards I can choose from, I have good exemplars of problems for each standard, I learned how to effectively introduce it, and I know how to set it up so I don’t die with all the extra work that comes along with reassessments.

[2] But yes, there are lots of things I could do to improve it. Always, always…

[3] I’ve talked with a teacher who does a lot of group work and presentations, and she gave me some excellent suggestions (revolving around using giant whiteboard) which I’m going to take on board.



  1. Sam,
    I can empathize. I have been there and it is not pretty. Yesterday, I listened to some idiot say that because of job security (tenure), teachers do not strive to do their best. I nearly exploded. He has no idea how much of ourselves we put into our craft. But now I am rambling.

    Nowadays, I try to manage my concerns about being a crappy teacher by (1) embracing graceful imperfection; and (2) apologizing beforehand to my learners – I will teach the course better the next time. That’s a fact.

    I must be aware of of this fact, accept it, and adjust.

    Have I ever told you my yoga story :-)


  2. Your post is quite descriptive of many of my own days. I have come to embrace that good learning is usually messy…on both sides of the teacher’s desk.

    I’m getting more comfortable with that messiness, but it seems that the students still seem to expect the clean, clearly laid-out, “tell me how to do it” lessons. Like you noted–it all involves risk. Risk correlates with reward.

  3. I like very much that you are doing problem solving, not so much that you are combining it with group work. But you’ve read my rants about group work in math before, so I won’t repeat them.

    Presentation is a skill that needs to be taught—it is not a natural talent. What have you been doing to explicitly teach the presentation skills you want the students to have?

  4. You do the problem solving before they learn the skills? Does that make them more receptive to the unit lessons or less.?

    1. Yes. But when I say “problem solving” — it doesn’t mean really hard problems. It’s guided questions to help students understand things on their own, with some critical thinking skills. I’ve changed my mind on what problem solving is/should be for kids.

      I don’t know if they’re more receptive to the unit, but they are not less receptive than in previous years. They are grappling on their own with ideas, though, which is the key difference.

  5. Sam

    Just curious, could you post an example of these pre-unit problem solving tasks? This is an area that I am desperately trying to get better at. I am comfortable embedding problems, novel situations, during the unit but I am not good at this sort of preview skill. I know there is a literary term that captures this better, I just cannot find it in my head right now…

  6. Amen. I’m in a similar transition, and I appreciate your point about the distinction between how I feel I’m doing and how my students think I’m doing (yet another reason to have regular student evals — to calibrate my own reactions). I also am trying to not beat myself up when I think my teaching is not as good as it could be. Side effect: the more understanding I have for my own mistakes, the more I understand my students’ mistakes. That has enabled me to learn more about what works and what they need. If that’s not a good reason to have compassion for myself, I don’t know what is.

  7. I hear you and I feel you!

    I’ve always included problem solving in my classes regardless of what I’m teaching because the students are so weak at it.

    I also know what it’s like to think that the kids are reading your mind and emotions. Doing some simple meditation in my head and using positive thoughts has actually helped a lot. As well as reminding myself that I cannot control what adolescents are doing or thinking and that half the time they don’t think we’re invested in our job.

    I actually had verbal diarrhea 2 years ago with a student at the end of the school year after he blew off taking his final. His mom was standing there with us and I could hear my conscious saying “Sarah, stop! Shut up!!! You’re going to get yourself fired!” I actually made him cry but he didn’t realize until then that as I had become invested in his education as well after working with him and his family all school year multiple hours before and after school and helping him with his other classes. After that interaction with that student he’s been vocal to everyone when he hears that they have me for class. He tells them “you got the teacher that cares about EVERYONE, even if she doesn’t have you in class”.

    So I feel you! Just remember to breathe and that it will all work out soon. Just focus on failing forward!

    I hope it goes well!

  8. So what were the excellent suggestions that you’re taking on board? I’ve been giving my kids more opportunities to present and explain their work, and I’m always frustrated at their lack of experience when it comes to presenting and explaining. (They also struggle to talk over our loud loud loud air conditioners.)

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