Identity Crisis

I just realized something about myself as a teacher. I wonder if this is something that a lot of teachers experience during their third year of teaching, as it seems like kind of an appropriate time.

I’m having an identity crisis.

I spent many years of my life assuming that classrooms were supposed to look like they do on TV – neat, orderly rows of students sitting quietly with their hands folded, waiting for me to impart my precious wisdom to them. (I assume TV is where I got that idea. Or maybe my own elementary experience – I’m sure not everyone in my class was that kind of student, but I was. And I didn’t care if anyone else was.)

When I became a teacher, I did the reading and learned that the sitting-quietly-in-rows thing isn’t really the current trend. And I thought, “Oh, that’s cool! If kids aren’t the sitting-quietly-in-rows type of kid, we can still teach them! We are learning how to reach kids on their level, instead of forcing them to conform to ours! What a fascinating shift in education!”

I’ve spent two years trying to learn how to become one of those teachers who embraces collaborative work, who encourages conversation in the classroom, who teaches in a way that all students can learn from.

But I kind of suck at it.

I think I’m still fighting a battle between how I think I should be teaching and how I want to default to teaching. Direct-instruction, sitting-quietly-in-rows teaching is what I’m most comfortable with, because it’s the only way I was ever taught. I have never seen a good model of any other form of instruction. Mentally, I embrace the idea that the best teaching uses many different approaches – direct instruction, collaborative work, independent practice, flipping, problem-based, project-based, blah blah blah – but I’ve never seen many of these in practice. I have the time this year to do projects, and do cool, in-depth lessons, and all kinds of collaborative activities, but when they fall apart (because they always do), I don’t know what to do.

Take today, for example.

This week, my students are doing a lesson from the Shell Centre. They started with a formative assessment which they took on Friday. We began the lesson with direct instruction yesterday (no school Monday due to inservice) and the students spent today working on a card matching activity in groups. The short version of the lesson is that the students need to find the equation of the lines given two points or the slope and one point to figure out which lines are the same. They have just spent two weeks on slope in their Algebra 1 class. Apparently, all they’ve taken away from those two weeks was “something about x1 and y1 and x2 and y2” and “rise over run”. It took us at least 10 minutes in each class to decide that a line must have a constant slope yesterday during “my” part of the lesson. Today, they seemed to have forgotten all of that. If another person tells me that they don’t “know how to do it”, I might lose my mind.

(My biggest issue with that statement, frankly, is that assumption that there must be one right way to “do it”, and since I didn’t show them that one right way, they can’t “do it”. My other big issue with that statement is that I DID SHOW THEM. Yesterday. I did an example on the board. We talked about slope, how a constant slope means the line is straight, how to calculate it, how graphing isn’t always the most accurate way to determine something, how to calculate the slope, and how to find the equation of a line.)

Continuing with my parenthetical train of thought above, this is a normal thing at my school – this severe lack of retention. It feels like no matter what we do, our students will not remember any of what we have taught them all year. I’m honestly not sure if it has something to do with our school culture, if there’s lead in our water or something else messing up their brains, if it’s related to a drill-and-kill style of teaching rather than a focus on true comprehension, or if I’m really just a shitty teacher.

Actually, you know what, I’m not done with this spiral-of-doom train of thought. Maybe I am a shitty teacher. Algebra makes so much sense to me! Of course variables can be used to represent unknown quantities! Of course you can manipulate them like numbers! Of course you can write an equation using numbers and variables to show the relationship between these two things! WHY DON’T MY STUDENTS “GET” THIS?! Why can’t I seem to explain this to them in a way that makes sense? I can’t get them to focus, I can’t get them to stop talking, and I can’t seem to explain anything. I can’t teach.

Ok, I’m going to try to finish my main point.

I spent most of my time today trying to help students figure out a strategy to get them started on the activity (most groups had barely started by the end of class, some had still not started at all). I tried to ask them questions to lead them through the thought process they needed to follow (which, by the way, is the EXACT SAME thought process we used yesterday during the example problem). They didn’t know the answers. I tried to come up with better questions. They still didn’t know the answers. I gave them instructions to think/talk to their group about something specific. As soon as I walked away, they were back to doing who-knows-what and insisting that they didn’t know “how to do it”.

I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t know how to get them from where they are to where they need to be. I really don’t know how to do all of this three times a day without getting really sick of the process and nearly-yelling (or actually yelling) at my last class. (And yes, I realize that telling them they should know how to do something does not magically make them know how.) They want worksheets with clearly-defined instructions, not open-ended tasks that actually teach them something they need to know, because that’s what they’re used to. They don’t want to have to think, and I don’t know how to get them to think.

I want to teach them to work together (without being assholes to each other the whole time) and I want to teach them how to reason through something and I want to teach them to explain their reasoning. I want to be that kind of teacher. But I don’t think I know how.

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