Editor’s note: This is the sixth piece in a series called “Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math While Looking Over Your Shoulder” by Barry Garelick, a second-career math teacher in California. He has written articles on math education that have appeared in The Atlantic, Education Next, Education News and AMS Notices. He is also the author of three books on math education. Says Mr. Garelick: “At its completion, this series will be published in book form by John Catt Educational, Ltd.” The previous chapters can be found here:
Ch 6 The Prospect of a Horrible PD, a Horrible Meeting, and an Unlikely Collaboration
Many schools require teachers to attend some kind of professional development and St. Stevens was no exception. Fortunately it was rather benign even though it was the whole day and was about technology in the classroom. But other than that it was fine.
In my previous school, the principal (and Superintendent) “asked” me and James, the other math teacher to attend six all day professional development (PD) sessions over the course of the school year. The PD, held by the County Office of Education, was to be a forum for “collaboration” among math teachers in the county.
While I don’t mind collaborating with teachers, I don’t like the collaboration to be prescribed. And certainly not for six times. I was also leery of James who hardly gave me the time of day and was passive aggressively hostile. As I told Diane during one of our more productive mentor sessions, “I dislike the idea of going to the sessions with him more than I dislike the idea of the PD itself.” She advised me that most complaints from teachers were about problems with other teachers. “And passive aggressive types are the worst,” she added. It was a valuable piece of advice.
As it turned out, the PD was cancelled. James and I were the only two people in the county who had signed up. Our delight was rather short-lived, however. The moderator met with our principal and suggested having a series of two hour meetings with us at school during the early part of the day when we weren’t teaching. Neither James nor I were too thrilled at the idea of collaborating with each other.
We all met one time. The moderator, a middle aged woman who talked in the cheery tones of a facilitator began describing how she loved math while in school but was just “following the rules and getting an answer”. Later when she taught math, she found she couldn’t explain to students the underlying concepts. Which led her to say, that the Common Core standards were all about “understanding”, and teachers had better teach for understanding because as she explained, “California’s Common Core-aligned tests are not about ‘answer getting’ anymore!” Students had to explain their answers and the tests evaluate whether students are able to solve problems in more than one way.
She went on almost breathlessly: “Students can get full credit on problems where they have to provide explanations—even if they get the numerical answer wrong.”
James and I said nothing.
“Provided the reasoning and process are correct, of course,” she added. “Explaining answers is tough for students and for this reason there is a need for discourse in the classroom and ‘rich tasks’ ”.
My years in education school had taught me the skill of keeping my mouth shut appropriately but at this point I couldn’t contain myself and asked “Could you define what a ‘rich task’ is?”
Her answer was extraordinary in its eloquence at saying absolutely nothing: “It’s a problem that has multiple entry points and has various levels of cognitive demands. Every student can be successful on at least part of it.”
I had had some experience with rich problems so I knew exactly the type of problem to which she was referring; problems like “A rectangle with a perimeter of 20 inches has what dimensions?” or something similar.
At this point James could take it no longer. He said that meeting for two hours for five sessions was superfluous if it was just the two of us. “I teach three different math classes plus doing the I.T. for the school and don’t have time to delve into alternative approaches other than to follow the script and curriculum as laid out in the book.”
The two of us must have seemed like a rich problem. “Books are just tools,” she proclaimed. “They may be strong in one area but weak in another. Traditional textbooks tend to be lacking in opportunities for conceptual understanding and are old school in their approach.”
She sensed that both of us were more than willing to let her dig her own grave here. “Though there’s nothing wrong with old school,” she quickly added.
As tempting as it was. I saw no need to tell her that I used a 1962 textbook by Dolciani for my algebra class.
She asked if we relied on our textbook for a “script”, meaning scope and sequence “Do you read just one textbook?” she asked me.
“I read lots of textbooks,” I said. She looked surprised.
“He’s also written books,” James said. I was surprised that he knew about them, but I had slipped “Math Education in the US” surreptitiously in the bookcase in the teacher’s lounge so maybe he had read it.
“How nice!” she said and feigned an interest by asking what they were about. I gave a “rich” answer. “Math education,” I said.
“Wonderful!” she said.
I then tried to summarize our thoughts. “Neither of us teaches in a vacuum,” I said. “I read lots of textbooks and talk to lots of teachers.” Since James had played up my authorship, I decided to return the favor.
“And James has a lot more experience than I do so he isn’t exactly ignorant about how to teach math. I really don’t think that this two-hour collaboration is going to add much more.”
I realized this opened me up to her protesting that perhaps I could benefit from his experience so I needed to head that off. “Besides, I’m getting mixed messages,” I said. “On the one hand I’m told by the administration that I’m doing great, and I hear from parents that I’m doing great. But then I’m told that I must attend this PD. Is there something about my teaching that’s lacking? What is this about?”
She assured us that there’s nothing lacking in our teaching and that she’s sure we are both fantastic teachers. “What is it then? Is this about test scores? They think this will raise test scores?”
She had no answer for this except something that I can’t remember. She saw the handwriting on the wall and said “No use beating a dead horse” and said she would talk to the administration about it. And that was the end of our PD.
I decided the next time I met with Diane, I would tell her about the success of James’ and my “collaboration.”