In August of 2018, I got a message from my friend Mary Bourassa who asked me if I was interested in being a featured speaker at OAME (the annual math teachers conference in Ottawa). I was absolutely going to say no, because I’m terrified of public speaking and I wasn’t sure I had anything of value to say to other teachers…
I know the irony of being scared of public speaking and being a teacher, but I know a lot of other teachers also feel this. But my biggest fear was just not being good enough. I wrote to Mary:
The truth is I can’t help feeling like this might be too big a leap for me. I don’t know if I could do what Fawn or Julie to me when I hear them talk, or do what Chris Shore or John Stevens do when they present. And I don’t want to commit unless I knew I wouldn’t be wasting anyone’s time.
Firstly, and most importantly, you would not be wasting anyone’s time.
I am a big proponent of elevating classroom teachers and giving them a voice and I hope that you will find yours for this event.
As someone who feels like an evangelist of the online math teacher community, I’m always saying to people hesitant to dip their toes into the water that their voices and perspectives are important and valuable. And when I say this, I mean it with every fiber of my being. So why was I doubting the value of my own voice? I agreed to do the talk as long as I could do it with a collaborator and friend. It was a 75 minute talk (and an associated 75 minute workshop) and planning that individually seemed so not fun. But I thought working collaboratively would be so much more intellectually fun! So I dragged my friend Mattie Baker (@stoodle) into the presentation. We brainstormed for ages, but in the end, finally decided that the idea of “The Teacher Voice” was exactly what we needed to talk about.
It’s now over, so I’ll start with the ending. The lecture hall of 200 people for our talk was almost full. And the 75 minute talk went fabulously. I had to save some tweets for posterity.
And OMG, we got a standing ovation. That was unexpected. And people were crying. That too was unexpected. I am not someone who feels proud about things easily. I usually focus on all that went wrong or ways I could have been better. But when we took a bow at the end and people stood up, my heart was bursting. All the work Mattie and I put into the talk for the previous 10 months, the weekends we sacrificed to write and practice and edit felt purposeful because at least for some teachers in the audience, our message was at least temporarily valuable. Weirdly my fear of public speaking disappeared the day of the talk after we had a solid rehearsal the previous day, and my fear of wasting peoples’ time disappeared after the talk ended and people came up to say such nice things to us.
The talk was broken into two parts. First, Mattie and I shared something we each did in our classrooms that was inspired by other teachers, and then adopted by other teachers. We wanted the audience to have something concrete to walk away with in case the rest of our talk didn’t resonate with them. We were breaking down the silos of our classrooms. Second, we each talked about the emotional life of a teacher. We wanted to break down the silos of our emotional worlds. There were so many messages we included in this part of the talk. Mattie shared his first year in teaching, which he previously shared on the Story Collider podcast. But here is one takeaway from my section of the talk:
Teaching is hard. We are going to feel bad. We’re going to be bad. And that’s okay. It’s okay to not love what you’re doing all the time. I’ve never met a teacher who is putting themselves out there in the important but hard ways who does. But we can be brought closer as we become vulnerable and share these things and realize we aren’t all alone in this.
And a second related takeaway:
Often times, we’re so critical about ourselves, we think of all that isn’t going right, all that we aren’t doing… that we lose sight of all that we are…. It’s so easy to be critical of yourself, to set the bar high, to see all the ways you’re not succeeding.
You see yourself in one way. But the reality of the situation is: We aren’t really all that good at seeing ourselves. That’s my big realization, and it only took twelve years. When we’re down and think we suck, yeah, we probably definitely maybe can be doing better. But hell if we aren’t already doing good, and we need to acknowledge that and spread it. We need to believe our friends when they tell us that our ideas our good, that something we did was good… we need to believe our kids when they say something spontaneous and positive about something happening in the classroom… and… we need to be sharing the good and the positive that we see in others. We need to help others see how important they are to you. We need to give cupcakes, send the random email, prop each other up, and help others see how they make your life better.
The talk focused on the hard times in teaching, and what we do when we hit them. At one point I asked the audience to share their coping strategies at the low points. I promised I would share them online, so here are what the audience typed. It’s amazing how similar the responses are…
(All the references to “coffee” in quotations comes from part of Mattie’s talk. You can interpret that to be getting a drink at happy hour.)
I shared my coping strategies afterward, and so many of them were covered by what people in the audience typed! Except for those people who talked about exercise and running and the gym and other evil things like that. Some of my favorites!
In the talk, I also shared the Explore Math project that I do with students. The website that I created for the project is here: https://explore-math.weebly.com/
I posted about it early on when I first started it, but haven’t done any additional posts on how I’ve changed it or how it’s evolved or what I’ve noticed when doing it with different grades (sorry, I should). The posts are here, here, and here. The most important thing I can suggest is that you need to adapt it to work for your kids and your school. For example, this year I tried this in 10th grade and it wasn’t as successful overall because I think the kids needed more structure and hand-holding. So I’m going to take that into account for next year.
Two teachers shared their experiences with the project, which I couldn’t fit into the talk. So I’m posting them here in case it entices you to do the project or some variation in your classroom.
At the conference, Mattie and I also gave a 75 minute workshop on the online math teacher community designed for people who were interested in joining in but didn’t know how (our slides for that are here).
Wow! I sponsor the math honor society (Mu Alpha Theta) at my school. We have about 70 students coming in next year. I want our meetings to deepen the experience with math, so I’ve been thinking about ways to do this. Two takeaways: the Explore Math, definitely gonna lay out this opportunity for them. The book with the writings by Mathematicians… now I just have to obtain a copy!!! I don’t get to math conferences much anymore. I tend to absorb the materials – I think we need to start a collection of math talks and spread them like TED talks! Then those of us that can’t go to a conference could eventually get to hear the information! Thanks for sharing. You care very deeply about what you do. That shines through, even when you worry about providing value. That is your ‘genius’!
I love the idea of collectively generating a collection of math talks!