Dave Reid is a high school mathematics teacher in his third year of teaching. He received his MA in Education and credential in secondary mathematics and physics from Stanford University in 2011. Dave spent a quarter of a century in high-tech primarily in the wireless and Global Positioning System (GPS) industries. He earned a BS degree in electrical engineering from George Mason University, and an MBA in finance and marketing from Santa Clara University. He also attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He blogs as Mr. Math Teacher and tweets as @mathequality.
Holding students to high expectations is not just for teachers.
As I counted off students in my fourth period Advanced Placement Calculus class recently, I came up one person short. My immediate thought, before I even knew who was absent, was that I hope the student does not fall too far behind, as we switched to a modified block schedule for this academic year; missing one day puts a student nearly two instructional days behind.
In a demanding course such as AP Calculus, many students reel from learning that they are not as naturally gifted in mathematics as they may have come to believe given their nearly stellar performance in earlier mathematics coursework. AP Calculus shakes the foundations of even the most mathematically gifted of students, while those that are not as gifted can be downright fearful….
By the end of the second week of class, [senior] students who are highly unlikely to be able to handle the demands of the course have either dropped or decided not to take any mathematics course their [last] year…. Fortunately, with frequent encouragement and supplemental support from their teacher, remaining students are typically able to overcome the initial shock of the course and rise to its challenge. In fact, my two AP Calculus sections [are] now preparing to hunker down for the demanding nine months ahead of them….
So, it was with great apprehension earlier this morning that I … [scrolled] down the attendance roster to the end where students who have dropped are recorded, I confirmed, with great sadness, and a rising anger, that another student was permitted to drop my course. How could an administrator approve a student’s request this far into the course without contacting me for my perspective? Making matters worse, the prior Saturday morning I had notified the assistant principal of instruction, and the principal not to drop any more students from the course, as fifteen-percent of my original roster had already dropped. For whatever reason, my request went unheeded.
The Class Must Go On
For a few seconds I simmered with anger. However, allowing my emotions to overtake me would not accomplish anything, especially as I had dozens of students waiting for me to start the class…. After helping students connect, graphically and algebraically, what they learned about slope in algebra 1 as well as what they learned about secant and tangent lines in geometry and functions with the newly learned calculus concept of limits, the class worked on homework problems as I worked one-on-one with students who needed help. Fortunately, the focus required in the moment helped students learn a new concept well, while keeping my mind off of the frustration I felt earlier in the period. As the bell rang, I dismissed students reminding them of their upcoming test the day after the long weekend.
Speaking My Truth
After class was over, … my mind revisited the emotions I felt earlier in the morning when I learned that Espy [had] dropped my course. Anger turned to sadness as I reviewed [her] transcript and GPA. [She] has a 4.0 GPA with A+ grades for all of her prior mathematics coursework; additionally, she worked diligently to develop proficiency in English as her high California English Language Development Test scores revealed. All indications are that she is on the path to become a first-generation college graduate. I know what that journey is like, as I am one myself. However, English is my native language, not Espy’s. My wife knows all aspects of that path, as she is a first generation Mexican American, first generation college graduate, and English was not her first language….
As I required my incoming students to write about themselves and mathematics, I noted that Espy wrote that mathematics is her favorite subject in high school, yet she also knew she needed to keep up her strong study skills to do well in the course given its emphasis on conceptual understanding in addition to procedural fluency….
Yet, those words no longer carried significance for Espy, at least for my AP Calculus course. Feeling wholly dissatisfied with what happened, I took the time to compose and send the following email to the entire administrative staff of my school: four assistant principals and the principal. I … strongly believed that in their attempt to honor a student’s request, the administration inadvertently took away the student’s opportunity to experience a rigorous college level course.
My words to the administrative staff follow….
I am very disappointed that Espy was dropped from my 4th period AP Calculus AB course without anyone consulting with me. While there are absolutely students who should drop the class, for a variety of reasons, Espy is not one of them….
Espy is the exact type of student this nation wants to succeed in an AP Calculus course. She may not know it herself, but she would have done extremely well in the course. She scored nearly ten percentage points above the mean score for all … students on my AP Calculus readiness test; she has the prerequisite skills to succeed in the course. She even has the potential to receive an A and pass the AP Exam, perhaps with a 4 or a 5.
If she had spoken with me, or an administrator had spoken with me, before dropping the course, I am confident I could have convinced her to stick it out, even if she felt overwhelmed at the time. I was able to do just that with another student, Ramon; he will do well in the course as well, as long as he holds up his end of the bargain, which is to spend time outside of the class period ensuring he learns the course material….
I am still a very new teacher who does not know all the traditional norms and conventions about how a school operates. And, in general, I am not a letter of the law person but a spirit of the law person, which is why I am so disappointed in this situation.
I also know that whomever approved her request did so because they wish to support her, and help her. Yet, in my opinion, what happened is exactly the opposite of support when it comes to developing perseverance, building confidence, demonstrating the ability to challenge oneself, and maintaining proficiency with mathematics in their senior year.
Let me tell you how I handle similar situations in my algebra 1 classes. When I call on a student who may not know an answer, or may not even know that they can reason their way to the answer, an adjacent student often whispers the answer to them. When that happens, I immediately chastise the well-intentioned, but misguided student since they deprived the student I called upon from a critical learning experience. I explain to the “helpful” student that they, in fact, were not helpful. I make sure to tell them that I know that what they did was well-meant, however, paradoxically, it has the exact opposite effect.
This is a teachable moment for everyone. The lesson being that when we are immediately rescued from a challenging situation, we miss out on becoming stronger, developing confidence, and being able to recognize that we can, in fact, overcome adversity, even when we believe deep down inside that we cannot.
The reason I gave up my career in high tech where I made more than our superintendent, is not because I sought an easier job, afternoons or summers off, or to teach mathematics, or any particular subject for that matter. It is simply because I felt a calling to help students overcome challenges in their lives, and teaching mathematics is a conduit for that task….
Unfortunately, over the past several decades, we have succeeded in convincing hundreds of millions of people that they are “not good at math,” when in fact, what is called math in most secondary schools is not even close to mathematics in all its splendid glory.
On the flip side, we have convinced tens of millions that they are good at math, when in fact, they are exceptional at memorizing, and succeeding in an … oversimplified, and direct-[instruction class]. However, when they face something slightly more complex … they fall apart as they have not developed the internal fortitude to persist with a problem that on the surface befuddles them. Our culture emphasizes finding a solution quickly, otherwise one might be perceived as weak or incompetent. This social norm compounds the perceived complexity of the problem for American students, leading most to give up prematurely, often commenting they have not yet been taught how to do this type of problem…. Research supports this latter point as students in Asia persist with a problem for minutes, or even tens of minutes before giving up, while students in the United States persist for tens of seconds, then give up. As a new AP Calculus teacher, I can readily attest to this phenomenon.
Hence, even our best and brightest are inadequately prepared for success in college, or beyond, as their problem solving … is more aptly described as working mathematical exercises than solving mathematical problems. This type of engagement with mathematics does not exist in our world outside of our classrooms…. No one is paid well to work mathematics exercises, yet that is how we prepare our most capable students, along with those who struggle mightily….
I remain deeply saddened by Espy dropping my AP Calculus … course. I intend to speak with her to learn more about her request to drop the course. I hope it was not simply because she feared she would not be able to succeed in the course, or worse, that she might not get an A. She very well could receive an A in the course, and the only way she would fail would be to give up. I try not to let students give up on themselves. I cannot convince all of them, and there are some who I know may not have the best preparation to succeed in the course, so I accept their desire to drop. Espy is not in the latter segment of students.
I do not blame anyone here. I am upset, but I completely understand that what was done was believed to be in Espy’s best interest. I just do not believe that it truly is in her best interest, unless there are extenuating circumstances, of which I am ignorant. Even if that is the case, I could easily implement accommodations to support Espy in those circumstances…. This is how I believe we best help our students develop into their full potential.
PS I know that many students complained that this course will be too difficult for them, that they do not want to work this hard in their senior year, or that I am not the type of teacher they wish to have in high school. I understand these perceptions. For some, I accept them, even though I believe the student is missing out on a grand opportunity to experience a rigorous learning experience that will benefit them immeasurably in college and in life. I purposefully portray the course as challenging, daunting even, as it truly is for many students given their preparation for this advanced course.
At the same time, I inform each and every student, repeatedly, that if they invest time outside of the class, using any or all of the many resources I provide to them, demonstrating their commitment to succeeding in the course, that they will succeed…. [I]f we allow students to give up on themselves too quickly, or fail to notify someone such as their teachers who truly know the student’s abilities as well as what they will face content wise so they can participate in the decision, we are falling far short of what I believe is our primary raison d’être as educators.
Reaching Out to Espy
A few minutes after sending my email message to my administrative team, I composed and sent a separate email message to Espy in hopes that she might reconsider her decision….
I was saddened to see that you dropped AP Calculus.
I believe you have what it takes to pass this course, possibly with an A, and to pass the AP Exam with a 4 or possibly a 5. Your readiness test score was well above the average for the course. In fact, I was impressed with your scores on all of the topic areas. You are more than prepared for the rigor of this course in terms of prerequisite knowledge.
I understand you may feel overwhelmed with the challenge this course presents. It is daunting. However, you could, and still can, overcome the challenge, if you believe in yourself. I believe in you.
If there is anything I can do to make it possible for you to be reinstated in this course, to include special accommodations for you, please let me know. I am a very reasonable person, in spite of the “persona” I portray in the course. It is a “tough love” persona, akin to that of Jamie Escalante, from “Stand and Deliver.” I admire him greatly for what he was able to do for so many students who did not believe in themselves, or their academic abilities.
Espy, I want you to take this course. I believe it will be good for you. I know it will help you develop into a stronger, more confident, and likely more capable person. I hope you reconsider your request.
If I could find you easily, I would deliver this message face to face. However, I am unable to do so as expediently as sending this email.
Regardless of what you decide, it was great having you in my class. I enjoyed seeing you smile, even at my poor attempts at humor.
I wish you the best in all that you pursue.
A Personal Delivery
Even though I sent emails off to both the administrative staff, and Espy, I felt compelled to do more to ensure Espy received my request, and carefully considered the possibility of rejoining the class….
Towards that end, I dashed off to print out my email and hand-delivered it to her sixth period teacher. I briefed Espy’s teacher on the situation, asked her to read the letter, and to deliver it to Espy, hoping she might encourage Espy to reconsider. She willingly agreed. She actually did more than I anticipated.
Espy’s sixth period teacher not only delivered my message to Espy, she allowed another educator, who co-taught with her on occasion, to read it, as she was working to involve more female students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”) programs and fields. With this fortunate coincidence, Espy had not one, but two additional advocates to discuss why she dropped, to encourage her to reconsider, and to follow up about her situation with on campus counselors.
The two teachers spoke with her at differing times sixth period letting me know afterwards that tears had welled-up in Espy’s eyes as they asked her what she planned to do. Tears nearly welled in mine when I learned of hers.
I have yet to hear from Espy. I hope that she rejoins the class. Only time will tell.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Dave Reid contacted me a few days later and said the following:
“I sent another email to Espy relaying the fact that my wife is a 1st generation college grad and 1st gen[eration] Mexican American who took AP Calc in high school, passed and had a 4.0 GPA.
Espy sent a terse one sentence reply with no subject line thanking me for my concern but stating that she made a decision and was sticking to it….
So, no fairy tale ending here. But I gave it my best, and that’s all I can ask of myself or anyone.”