I have been a educator for over fifteen years. I began as a middle school math and science teacher and eventually enjoyed eight years as a math teacher specialist (a teacher who supports other math teachers). However, at the end of the 2017-2018 school year I made a very challenging decision and filed paperwork to take a leave of absence from Downey Unified School District, where I’ve worked for the last 13 years.
I am fortunate that I will continue to work in math education and already have plans to work regularly with schools, teachers, and students. However, this change will give me more time to develop other ideas in education that I’ve wanted to explore.
I felt like writing a blog post would be a good opportunity for me to pause and reflect on these last eight years. As with all of what I write, I share my thoughts partly because I hope it will help others and partly as a way to process my own experiences. So, here is what I have learned from being a math teacher specialist…
It’s really about relationships. Relationships are the glue of society. Without them, significant progress rarely happens. It’s similar to the adage that students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like. Teachers don’t learn from colleagues they don’t like. We have to listen to each other and build trust. Teachers have a lot on their plates. Whether it’s a first-year high school teacher who’s expected to spend 15 hours a week coaching a team, a 5th year teacher who still doesn’t have tenure and is afraid of trying something new that might make her look bad, or a veteran teacher who is dealing with dire family situations outside of her control, these are situations that matter.
I naively thought I could just meet a teacher and tell him or her what to do. In retrospect, I realize that this would be like a doctor meeting a new patient and immediately prescribing a treatment plan. It’s critical for the doctor to listen to her patient and establish trust. It took me years to realize this and years more to establish those relationships. I believe that it is usually worth taking the time to build relationships. This is the equivalent to taking time to build a superhighway versus a single lane road. It might take more time up front to build but it will result in significantly more information being able to transfer between the two people in the long run.
From the perspective of the teachers you work with, you represent the entity that made these decisions that affect their livelihood and are often asked to explain or defend the policy. It’s hard to tow the company line when you think that their concerns are perfectly valid. From the perspective of the administrators you work for, you are the ambassador that will ensure that the policy is implemented. This is also hard to do when you don’t agree with what you have to do.
I did not enjoy those experiences.
- Too many incoherent district initiatives that dilute attention and resources
- Not enough substitutes are available to cover all the teachers who’d need to attend the training.
- Not enough money to pay for everyone to participate in the training.
- Teachers who have experienced such inconsistency with previous policies that it feels wiser to wait out this new initiative.
Basically, I came into this job clueless about how hard it was to actually implement what we had hoped and planned for.
In reality though, it’s impossible to completely eliminate losing touch with what teachers actually experience. For example, while I taught many lessons, it’s been years since I taught the same group of students a multi-week unit, graded piles of papers, or dealt with parents who were concerned about new instructional methods. I tried to keep this in mind when I reflected on my experiences.