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Disappointment and Hiding in the Classroom

February 15, 2013

I’ve been noticing lately my disappointment in students. I don’t want to feel disappointed in students. Honestly, I don’t want to feel disappointed in anyone. Who does? But you might argue that we have certain expectations for how the people around us will act, and that people don’t always meet those expectations. When they don’t, I am justified in feeling disappointed, at least provided that my expectations were reasonable. The trouble is that  disappointment is counterproductive, and for me it is part of an overall tendency I have to disconnect with people.

Let me look at this a little closer. I have certain expectations for my students. I set those out for the students by giving them specific assignments (“turn this worksheet in on Monday” or “write a blog post about your problem-solving process”), and I lay them out on the course syllabus by telling students to come to class, check their email regularly, participate, and so forth. There are also a collection of expectations that go unspoken by me. I expect that students will be thinking about what they need to do to prepare for upcoming exams, even if I don’t give them explicit assignments. I expect that students will ask for help and support when they don’t understand something after class. I expect that students will monitor what they do and don’t understand. I expect that students will give me their best work, and won’t piece together something at the last minute. I often say things which imply these expectations, but I’m not always explicit about them. Also notice that not all of these expectations are realistic.

If a student doesn’t meet these expectations, I get cranky. In between classes, if I am expecting work and participation from students that I don’t see, I start to worry, and to run my “disappointment tape.” Typically it involves me getting frustrated and making up a lot of things that I imagine to be happening with the students. I imagine them as uninterested in the course, not dedicated, not hard-working, wanting to get away with not doing work, not caring about thinking deeply, not caring about interacting with me or other students. Yes, there’s some really ugly stuff hiding in there. The thing is that I don’t know that any of that is really happening. Mostly, I think what is happening with me is that I want this connection with students, and most of what I have to connect with is their work. When the work isn’t there, I feel rejected. I imagine the students pulling away from me, and I rush to pull away from them first, by getting “disappointed” in them. Most of the time, I can get back my connection with the students simply by being around them — it is the time in between classes that provides a space for these feelings to grow.

Students don’t always do what we teachers what them to do. In fact, people in general don’t always do what other people what them to do. So we get anxious about our relationships and our standing with other people. In school, this means teachers get frustrated with and disappointed in students. What do students do? Students learn to hide from the disappointment of teachers. They hide and they lie so they can save themselves from the consequences of expectations unmet. Students hide so that they’re grades aren’t in jeopardy and they hide so that they can maintain positive relationships with the powerful people that are important to them. Students get into a habit of hiding, so that it seems as natural as breathing. I remember it well from the last time I was a student — doing work I wasn’t proud of and hoping it would slip by without notice, making up excuses for doing work late or stretching excuses that were technically true but not really accurate, trying to look good in order to get away with things. As a teacher, I know that students are doing these things, but I ignore it, acting as if students are going to meet all of my expectations, and then getting disappointed when they don’t. Because I am required to assign grades to students, I maintain and perpetuate the fiction that grades mean something objective, when the reality is that they’re just a somewhat arbitrary record of how well a student met my somewhat arbitrary standards about a somewhat arbitrary collection of activities and topics.

What if I stopped doing this? It’s hard to imagine. Could I stop having expectations of students? What would happen to me and to the students if I did? What if I kept having my expectations, but was more honest about the fact that I know students won’t always meet them? What’s so bad about the students not meeting them anyways? Could I keep the expectations, but let go of the disappointment, simply connecting with students about what happened and deciding what to do next? Could I let my students be honest with me about the unrealistic nature of my expectations and with what really happens for them in a class? Could I let students formulate their own expectations, help them to make those expectations realistic, and then help them to live up to those expectations? Could I create a classroom environment in which I helped my students evaluate themselves? Wouldn’t this cause the very foundation of objective and rational subjects like math and science crumble because students would start writing expressive poetry about how math makes them feel and giving themselves an A++ on every assignment?

 

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Come check out Liberation Math

February 5, 2013

I’m having a great time teaching a new class, Liberation Math, this semester. It’s a powerful class in which we are engaging in a critical exploration of mathematics education, mathematical identity, and the place of mathematics in our lives. If you are curious, check out the website http://liberationmath.org where you will find blog posts and lots of food for thought. Make comments, ask questions, and follow the hashtag #liberationmath on twitter.

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Emotional Cycle of Teaching

January 29, 2013

I’m now in the second week of classes, and today I noticed how much my emotions have been fluctuating over the last week. I’ve experienced excitement, tension, anxiety/worry, happiness, connection, and isolation. For me, what primarily drives these emotions is how connected I feel and how exposed I feel. As I gear up for a class, I think about what I want to do and what the students might want and my anxiety and excitement both go up. I want the class to go well, and I manage the anxiety around that by preparing. Sometimes my preparation is great, and sometimes I over-prepare, repeatedly messing with my plans and making them more elaborate or complicated than they need to be. Essentially, the anxiety is about exposure and vulnerability. Teaching leaves you very vulnerable and we all deal with that vulnerability in different ways. The more I can just be OK with the vulnerability, the better things tend to go because when I do that I leave plenty of room for the students. When I get to tense and over-prepare, I tend to shut the students out, trying to control everything about the class. There’s a sweet spot to preparation, where I feel safe enough, but let myself be vulnerable enough to the students to make real connections. It’s often a hard spot for me to reach!

During class, my emotions all depend on what I get back from the students. If I’m getting a lot back from the students, I feel connected and less exposed, so I relax and take more risks. When I get less back from students, I talk more and feel more exposed and anxious. I want to focus this semester on watching the students more, no matter my mood, setting aside whatever anxiety I feel to really see what they are doing. It’s harder than it sounds, at least for me.

After a class, I tend to get a dip where I worry about both my performance and the students performance. What did they get out of the class? Are we moving in the right direction? Here I find that minute responses can help, because at least I have information from students and for me data is often an antidote to anxiety and that feeling of exposure. Even better is real conversations with students directly after class, and I want to make more of those happen. Checking in with students after class can lead to a great dialogue and a chance to offer support. I also feel relief after teaching — another class is over and I don’t have to start that cycle planning, execution, and evaluation for another couple of days.

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Talks at Joint Math Meetings

January 12, 2013

I gave two (yes, two) talks at the Joint Math Meetings this week, and they both have prezi’s. The first talk was about my work using game theory to model gendered division of labor in parenting young children. This prezi is below (or click here to view at prezi.com), and the work will be appearing soon in the journal Rationality and Society.

The second talk was on shame and mathematics — what it is and what we can do about it. You can see that prezi below (or click here to view at prezi.com). If you have comments, questions, or just want to talk about this work, I’m very excited about it, so leave me a comment!

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Accomplishments and Regrets in 2012

December 31, 2012

With 2012 coming to a close, I’ve been thinking about my year. I am proud of a lot that I did this year including

  • My application for a Radcliffe Fellowship: I wrote a good application and was brave enough to apply
  • My application for promotion
  • Taking the first steps for my Liberation Math website (http://liberationmath.org)
  • The amazing connection I have had with my spouse this year
  • The way I talk to my kids about anything and everything
  • The great talks I gave and connections I made at conferences, workshops, and invited talks this year
  • The connections that I had this year with both my parents
  • Getting a 529 set up for kids for college and setting up regular contributions
  • Solving my long-standing digestive issues! Figuring out that I have SIBO was transformative, and I have made great strides in fixing my problems. Woo hoo!
  • I had a paper accepted to a sociology journal (the paper is in press at Rationality and Society), and I’m a mathematician!
  • I had great connections with students in many of my classes and I feel good about a lot of the teaching I did this year.

    Climb Ev'ry Mountain

    Climb Ev’ry Mountain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I also have some regrets:

  • Not pushing the 529 out to grandparents so they can contribute
  • Not being proactive enough in setting up solo time with my mom
  • Losing the connection with dad for a little while because I stopped calling him
  • Getting angry at my kids and not wanting to stop getting angry and be a grownup
  • Not doing something like yoga or meditation to restore and center myself
  • Letting myself get away with not connecting deeply with my students
  • Not blogging regularly enough
  • Not attending to how my net worth is growing (or, um, not growing)
  • Not dreaming big enough about liberation mathematics (but I’m working on that now!)
  • Spending my energy treading water and distracting myself rather than really digging in (busy bee trait)

I have started to work on setting up dreams, plans, and goals for this upcoming year, so I may blog about those in the coming week. A lot of my energy is going to putting up content at my new site Liberation Math, so come visit me there!

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Shame and Mathematics

November 9, 2012

Shame and Mathematics

Prezi of a talk I gave at Carlow University a couple of weeks ago called Shame and Mathematics. The talk addresses my theory of shame and math as well as ways that we can address mathematical shame in students. I’d love any and all comments!

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Math Exams

October 17, 2012

I gave exams this week, which means that both my students and I are in emotional turmoil. My calculus students struggled to complete the exam in time, which isn’t typically true of my exams, so I need to compare this year’s exam to last year’s. I did have a worry as I was writing it that it was a little long, and I should have listened to my gut! The exam I gave in abstract algebra didn’t seem too long for the students, but I know students struggled. Now I have to grade all of the accumulated exams and have the usual emotional baggage. I feel disappointed in myself and in the students. I doubt myself. I question my fitness for teaching. I get angry at the students for not trying harder, and I even get angry at them for making mistakes. I feel hopeless about the class and about the possibility of any forward progress at all. Dreary and gross stuff that I really don’t even want to admit.

Exams are a situation of artificial pressure. Exams are weak on authentic importance. These exams are only important because I will use it to write down grades for the students. The grades are important to me because they give me a way to assess my class and the students in it, determining whether individual students and the class as a whole met the objectives of the course. The grades are important to the students because they want good grades in order to stay in school, keep scholarships, look good to others, be attractive to employers, and meet requirements of a program or major. Note that none of those things involve student learning. What I want to do in my life is to help students understand and use mathematics, to be powerful with math. A test can only do that as an accidental outcome. A test might help me to assess if I have helped students, but the only way for a test to help with learning is if the pressure of the test helps students to put forth more effort, or if, when faced with a bad test outcome students make a change in their learning habits or approach.

But I have seen first hand what happens when students aren’t having tests — the majority of them don’t push themselves to work. Maybe students are addicted to tests, and thus we are all addicted to this unpleasant experience. Maybe I’m addicted to tests because I have developed too few other methods for helping students to motivate themselves. In any case, I don’t know what to do about it, so I keep giving tests.

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