What Really Matters in My Math Classroom (Jerry Brodkey)

Jerry Brodkey has been a public secondary school teacher since 1975, and has taught most of the subjects in Social Studies and Mathematics. He has also taught for years in private schools. He now teaches remedial algebra and Advanced Placement Calculus.  His undergraduate degree was from Rice University (BA 1974), and has graduate degrees from Stanford (MA 1976, Ph.D. 1987).

 He has written guest posts for this blog on “smart” boards and stress on high school students.

A few days ago I was sitting watching my 8th grade math students graduate from middle school. I like to sit off to the side at each graduation, listening as each student’s name is called, thinking of each as an individual, seeing each for perhaps the last time. 

These students, and all students, have been through too much these last three years  –  three years of disrupted life and education.  The pandemic, covid tests, masks, fear, social isolation, anxiety, over a full year of zoom learning, social media, hurtful texts, economic disruption for their families, inflation, college admission worries (yes, even for middle school students), George Floyd, January 6th, the Ukraine, Buffalo, now Uvalde.

It is amazing they are graduating and moving forward. 

I’ve been teaching for a long time. I started in 1975 and taught in public high schools until 2015. I retired for one year, missed teaching, and then found a wonderful nearby middle school where I’ve now been for six years. Even after almost fifty years, teaching continues to be challenging, exciting, and intense.

There is so much discussion and debate over math education.  What really matters, what makes a difference? After all of my years teaching it continues to get clearer and clearer to me.

Achievement matters. Each student needs a basic understanding of mathematical ideas.  Each student needs a strong foundation, not only for artificial reasons like college applications and success in schools, but more importantly for understanding an important part of the world. How can complex problems be broken down and solved? What does information and statistics tell us? What does it mean to prove a theory or hypothesis?  What ideas and insights from the past help us solve today’s challenges?

Parents and students worry about math grades and acceleration. I repeatedly tell them learning math is not a race.  The key is to build a strong foundation and create a desire to keep learning.

I tell students and parents there is no magic in learning math. I’m pretty traditional. I tell parents and students:  To achieve real success –  Have excellent attendance. Do all your homework. Ask questions. Get help fast.

What doesn’t matter? The choice of textbooks doesn’t matter much to me. Most are good enough, none perfect.  If I don’t like a problem set or how a topic is presented, I’ll choose another approach. I’ll ask colleagues what they do.  I’ll create my own problem sets. Debates over textbooks are noise.

Common Core? Back to Basics? Group learning? Individualized instruction? Programmed Learning? More  or less technology in the classroom? Standardized tests?  Block schedules or daily classes? Take calculus in 11th grade or 12th grade? Accelerate in 4th or 5th grade? Heterogeneous classrooms or group by ability? Inservice programs? District speeches? . All these debates? Most of these don’t matter much. Perhaps they are useful but  mostly they are noise, noise, noise.  A balanced approach probably works best.

So what matters most? –  Each individual is a unique individual, and the classroom is  a unique group experience. A baseball team has 162 games, a teaching year about 180 days of instruction.  I taught many of my graduating 8th graders for two consecutive years  – approximately 350 hours. There will be ups and downs for each individual, and for each class as a group.

As a teacher, I can help create a classroom tone that fosters achievement and learning.  As a teacher I can form a relationship with each student, creating a sense of trust.  I can help create a safe classroom where learning can happen.  I can do my very best every day, helping students understand new and complex ideas.  I can be patient and flexible.I can draw upon   my past experiences to find different approaches that work for different students. I can listen. I can model learning.

I have no illusions about what I can and can not do.  I know students will, as years pass, forget me and forget much of what they learned.  Who remembers their middle or high school math teacher?  Perhaps I can gently shape their path through school and beyond. Perhaps I can slightly alter the trajectory of their future experiences. Perhaps I can help them through the difficult times they are now experiencing.

I’m thinking about my students as individuals. Some are constrained by negative attitudes and behaviors.  I listed these below.  Each period each day I try to move my students’ attitudes and behavior  to the left column from the destructive right side.   It is a long process, never-ending.  

STUDENT ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIORS

POSITIVE                                                             NEGATIVE

I can                                                                      I can’t

I don’t understand, so I will ask for help                I am afraid to ask for help

I believe I can be a good math student                 I will never be a good math student

It’s hard, but I can do it                                          It’s hard, I’ll never be able to do it

I’m engaged in learning                                         I’m  withdrawn,hiding, I want to be invisible

The math classroom is a safe place                     The math classroom is a scary place

I did poorly on this test, but I will figure it out         I did poorly on this test and I want to forget it                 

There is joy in learning, a sense of wonder            I fear what will come next

I never have understood this but will now               I never understood this and never will

get some help                                                         

If  the teacher calls on me, I’ll try, and it is OK         I am terrified the teacher might call on me

if I make a mistake

I have a sense of real accomplishment                    I’m  frustrated and confused

What’s Important? It’s important  my students deeply believe :

I want to learn more –  I can learn more  – more math, more everything

I’ll carefully listen to each graduate’s name. I have my own sense of wonder. Each student has enriched my life and the lives of their classmates. Each is a miracle. Each matters.

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