We Already Have Strong Teachers

Ten days ago, the third and final weekend of the spring Vermont Mathematics Initiative term finished up on a high note.  Saturday morning was the symposium, which meant that I and each of the other instructors and mentors met with six teachers, two from each cohort.  Those in their first year presented lesson studies, those in the second talked about specific curriculum questions, and those about to graduate explained their action research projects.  My group had rich and detailed discussions throughout.  These teachers want the best for their students, and are thus willing to examine their own teaching carefully and critically, in the best sense of that word.

A week or so later, I came upon an “Invitation to a Dialogue” about teaching on the New York Times website, in the form of a letter by David Greene of Hartsdale, New York.  While I certainly share his reservations about the Teach for America model, I was frustrated by his vague and lofty vision of what constitutes a “great” teacher, particularly after the symposium and, before that, several classroom visits I’ve done this year.  So I shot off a response; you can see the original letter plus a few responses, including mine, here.

Then I found a draft of a post I started months ago, which touches on several of the themes I’d been chewing on since the symposium.  The ideas are still current, at least in my head, so here goes:

All I know about Marsha Ratzel is what I read in her article The Talking Cure: Teaching Mathematical Discourse, but if I were a middle-school principal I’d want her at my school.  She knows her students and wants what is best for them in the long term, she understands the importance of the Common Core Practice Standards, and she is willing to look around for good ideas on implementing them.  Then she watches and listens to her students in an honest appraisal of her results so far.

Here’s Ratzel’s punchline (but read the whole article anyway):

My classroom is becoming more like the collaborative, challenging work environments my students will face in the future—whether or not their careers have anything to do with math.

I’m brought back to a question I consider frequently:  to what extent do teachers themselves experience “collaborative, challenging work environments”?  I know this varies a lot from school to school and district to district, so I wonder how involved Ratzel’s own colleagues — the local ones, not the “Twitterverse” variety — have been involved in the development of her current approach.

A few years ago, a VMI teacher told me that she had to get used to the idea of having other adults in her classroom, though of course it was beneficial once she got over the hesitation.  I understood what she meant.  Some of us go into teaching despite being introverts, so we can be shy about inviting colleagues to sit in.  We should do it anyway.  Collaboration has to include asking for and offering feedback on the heart of our practice.

P.S.  In revising I’ve noticed that Ratzel also has a blog called “Reflections of a Techie.”  Worth another look, I think.

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About Priscilla Bremser

Professor of Mathematics Middlebury College
This entry was posted in Inquiry-Based Learning, Teacher Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to We Already Have Strong Teachers

  1. Rob Root says:

    As usual, a great blog post. Greene was quite right to laud your perspective on his commentary. I am reminded of the children’s book _The Dot and The Line_ by Norman Juster of Phantom Tollbooth fame. When the dot realizes that she prefers the hero (the line) to his nemesis, a squiggle, she realizes “what she thought was freedom and joy was nothing but anarchy and sloth.” Greene’s yen for teacher who will “[be] creative, independent, spontaneous, practical and rule-bending” puts lots of emphasis on passion and engagement, which is certainly valuable, but your point that solid content knowledge and careful preparation matters even more.
    I realize that my own teaching depends on the students for its success. I go in with a plan, but in the best classes, the students pepper me with questions that lead me to alter my presentation to accommodate their needs. It generally takes a class a while to realize that I _want_ them to do this! I think that they are used to teachers who are going to present the material the way they know it, and that will be that. Of course part of the trick to develop the students’ trust in me and my interest in them. Sadly, grading often gets in the way of this goal, but typically there are a few students who understand that there is more going on than grading of their performance. The quantity who understand this is often critical to the success of the class, in my view.

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