Twitter Math Camp just ended, and I’m feeling a sense of sadness because I miss my friends already, but that is counterbalanced by renewed invigoration. Although I’m not ready to return to the classroom yet, the reason is because now I have so many things I want to think about and implement, and I need time to sort all of that out.
A Change Was A Brewin’
But while we were all together, something started occurring to me. I do a lot of thinking about this online community, the #MTBoS… who we are, why we came together, why we continue to come together, how are we inviting those who want to join in the fun, what we can do as a collective whole, and what we are doing as a collective whole. For me, this community started 8 years ago, and I’ve seen it grow from a nascent group of bloggers who shared their classroom activities and musings on education and their kids to a much more complex *thingie.* (Yup, I’m awesome at wording, right?!) Two years ago, after TMC13, I wrote:
the main takeaway of the conference was new. It was that we are a powerful force. We are not a loosely connected network of professionals, but we are a growing, tightly-connected network of professionals engaged in something unbelievably awesome. Through this community, we are all – in our own ways – becoming teacher leaders.
Around that time, I saw a lot of cool collaborative *thingies* just starting to bloom and blogged about how frakking awesome that was:
One thing that is now crystal clear to me is that we’re shifting into a new phase. (“We’re” meaning our little math teacher online community.)[…] Now in the past year or year and a half, there has been an explosion of activity. and this explosion seems to center around (a) collaboration and generating things which are (b) not really centered about us and our individual classrooms. We’re thinking bigger than ourselves.
I’m talking the letters to the first year teachers, I’m talking the Global Math Department, I’m talking thevisualpatterns website, I’m talking the month long new blogger initiation, I’m talking the freaking inspirational One Good Thing group blog, I’m talking Math Munch, I’m talking the collaborative blog Math Mistakes, I’m talking MathRecap to share good math PD/talks with each other. And of course, now we have the Productive Struggle blog, Daily Desmos, and the Infinite Tangents podcast. 
We’re still keeping our blogs, and archiving our teaching and sharing ideas, and talking on twitter. But now we’re also moving into creating these other things which are crowdsourced and for people other than just those in our little community…
It’s been a freakin’ pleasure to see all this stuff emerge out of the fertile soil that we already had. We’re starting to create something new and different… and… and… I can’t wait to see what happens.
At that time, it was just the beginning… So much has happened since.
We’re at Someplace New
There are many more people who are jumping in. More initiatives and collaborative projects are happening. People are meeting up more and more in real life tweetups. There has been an NPR story on one of us. Multiple grad students are doing their dissertation and research about our community. The MTBoS has no official organization or centralized structure and doesn’t speak with a single voice (something I value greatly), but it has gotten the attention of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). The president elect and the executive director of NCTM came to TMC15. They have given us booth space at their last national conference. There are a series of sessions at MTBoS (strands) that have happened (one, two). It’s worth thinking about what this means.
When I was at TMC15, I noticed that there wasn’t as many conversations or mentions of “celebrities” or “rockstars” as in previous years. I think I heard those words at most twice. It’s not like people weren’t excited to meet their math teacher crushes, but something felt different. I think we’re shifting away from “celebrities” and “rockstars” and are moving towards brands. Okay, that’s not the perfect term, because there is something pejorative about that, and I mean anything but that, but people have their *thingies.*
Some quick examples:
@cheesemonkeysf is known for talking points and how the social-emotional life of a student has everything to do with their ability to learn
@PiSpeak is known for math debate in the classroom
@sophgermain is known for diversity and inclusion issues
@fawnpnguyen is known for visual patterns and her Sage Experienced Teacher Wisdom (aka her funny and emotionally charged stories from her classroom)
@mathequalslove is known for her work on interactive notebooks and her craftiness
@AlexOverwijk is known for activity based teaching
@mpershan is known for exploiting math mistakes and encouraging critical discourse
and the list can go on and on and on…
I think the idea of “celebrity” is being replaced with “brand” (or niche, or whatever). As the community grows, there are more and more voices. But there are certain ones that get a lot of traction. Of course the more involved they are (via blogging or tweeting), the more noticed they are. But that’s not enough. It’s their messages.
Two things keep ringing around in my head about this.
One came from Christopher Danielson’s amazing keynote at the conference. His message: “Find what you love. Do more of that.” Of course, that’s a little pat, and you need to see the whole presentation to truly understand. It isn’t “I love mathematics” or “I love kids.” He asked us to dig deeper, go a bit farther. What about mathematics speaks to us? What about working with kids makes us tick? His example: he loves ambiguity. The space between the certainties. And so a lot of his work as a teacher is exploiting those ambiguities with his students to get them to learn mathematics — but also hopefully appreciate (and dare I say, love) ambiguity too?
The other is from a reddit AMA conversation with Kenji Lopez-Alt. He writes the best food blog posts evar! And in this Ask Me Anything, he was asked for advice on starting a food blog:
I’m not posting this because I want to share his advice on starting and maintaining a blog. But I realized why I love his posts is because he does have a specific point of view, and that point of view speaks to me in spades. His passion about the science of foods and sharing his discoveries with others is so apparent. But I suppose what I mean is: he has found something he loves, and is doing more of that. He has a brand.
I suppose I’m saying that what I’m seeing is that there are a lot of others out there in the math community who have found that thing they love, that specific thing that makes them the teacher they are, the thing they are passionate about, and their blog and twitter conversations tend to revolve around that. They are doing what Kenji suggested — but I’m guessing without even consciously realizing it.
I don’t know, I’m just musing here. But I think ages ago there were “rockstars” and “celebrities” who were well-known — but some of their rockstarness was from being around for a long time and thus having a large network of people they could communicate with in a tightly knit community that was growing. Now I think that may be shifting. I think as we have more people, the MTBoS has a lot of mini-communities that exist within it — it’s a patchwork quilt. And that is a natural and good thing.
And I’m seeing specific people — old and new — speaking with clear voices and messages. This is what I’m passionate about. This is how I enact that passion. This is what I stand for. This is my brand. Hear me roar. 
And they are going outside of their schools and our smaller community to bring the thing they love to a larger audience. Creating websites, writing books, leading professional development, etc. They are expanding their brand. (And again, I don’t mean brand in a negative way!)
These are the people that speak to me. They have a voice. And I’m interested in hearing what that voice is saying. I would venture to say that they speak to others for that same reason.
What is so awesome sauce about this is that they are becoming teacher leaders. We don’t have models for what a teacher leader is in the United States. Once you become a teacher, unless you leave the classroom, you will always be a teacher. There are no ranks (except maybe the very expensive National Board certification), and there aren’t well-defined pathways to get more involved in the profession — again, without leaving the classroom. There aren’t a lot of models of those who are effecting change outside their own classroom. Think about it: excluding the MTBoS, can you think of five teacher leaders who are still in the classroom? One? 
But I see right now in this community the creation of new models for what a teacher leader can look like. Whether you have five years in the classroom or twenty five, there are pathways that people in the MTBoS are carving out in order to share what they love. Help other teachers. Impact student lives. And more than anything, this is what I predict will be happening more and more as the community continues to grow and mature. 
Back To Me
On a more personal reflective note, I realized I don’t think I have that brand. I think if 10 people were asked in the MTBoS, “what is Sam Shah about?” I doubt there would be a general consensus. Why? Because I don’t think I have figured that out for myself… yet. I know many things about myself as a teacher — I can be reflective as heck at times — but I still don’t think I speak with that voice or brand that so many others I admire do. And that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s just me still figuring stuff out.
 Again, I don’t think many would even say they’re aware of it…
 This is not a knock on those who have left the classroom to help our profession. I am just saying it’s hard to be a teacher leader and stay in the classroom. And I want to stay in the classroom.
 A lot of this part of my thinking came from @pegcagle and @_levi_’s TMC talk.