Various Narratives, Growth Mindsets and an Intro to One of my Parole Officers

Editor’s note: This is the first 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: “If this series goes right, it will be the fourth book.”

Various Narratives, Growth Mindsets, and an Introduction to One of my Parole Officers

If you are reading this, you either have never heard of me and are curious, or you have heard of me and have pretty much bought into my “narrative” of math education. I tire of the word “narrative” (almost as much as I tire of the word “nuance”) which I see in just about everything I read nowadays. I thought I’d charge it rent, so to speak, since it seemed appropriate for the teaching experiences I’m about to describe. I’m currently teaching seventh and eighth grade math at a K-8 Catholic school in a small town in California. Prior to that, I taught seventh and eighth grade math for two years at a K-8 public school in another small town in California, which is where I will start this particular narrative.

It is a one-school district so superintendent and principal were always close by. After receiving praise from the superintendent both formally and informally, I received a lay-off notice. Such notices are common in teaching, with the newest teachers receiving such notices and usually getting hired back in the fall.  Nevertheless mine was final.

It is tempting to make my termination fit various narratives pertaining to the kind of teachers the teaching would like to see less of. Specifically teachers like me who choose to teach using explicit instruction; who use Mary Dolciani’s 1962 algebra textbook in lieu of the official one; who believe that understanding does not always have to be achieved before learning a procedure; who post the names of students achieving the top three test scores; who answer students’ questions rather playing “read my mind” type of games in the attempt to get them to discover the answer themselves, and attain “deep understanding”.  However logical, compelling and righteously indignant such narrative might be, my termination will have to remain a mystery. 

I realize that the praise I received might represent people seeing what they want to see. For example, I once told my latest eighth grade algebra class that my classroom is one place where they won’t hear the words “growth mindset”—to which the class reacted with loud applause. The current educationist narrative interprets “growth mindset” (wrongly, in my opinion) as building confidence in oneself which then leads to engagement which breeds motivation and ultimately success. I believe it’s the other way around: success via instruction and practice breeds motivation.

So I describe my teaching as, “providing my students with the necessary instruction to achieve success, which leads to motivation, and engagement, and ….” It doesn’t matter what follows after “motivation and engagement”. Those are the magic words that provide the “look and feel” of growth mindset thinking.  In fact there are many things you can do to make it look as if you’re on board with progressivist teaching. Since even traditional teaching includes group work occasionally, activities (again occasionally), collaboration, and so on, one can play that up—if asked.

And I was asked—by my mentors. In California, new teachers must undergo a two-year “induction” program with a mentor with whom teachers meet once a week. (Yes, I’m new; I’m on a second career, having retired a few years ago and went to Ed school to obtain my certification to teach math.)The end result of the two year inquisition is that one’s teaching credential is changed from preliminary to permanent. Failure to do this within a certain amount of time means you don’t have a license at all. So it is a rather important process.

I have had two different mentors for each year I’ve been at the school. I’ve come to think of them as “parole officers”, who ensure that the newly released prisoners from Ed school adhere to the bad and ineffective practices taught there..

I had met with my first mentor a few months before my first year at the school began. I wanted to know just what I was going to be dealing with. She was a woman in her 60’s who had taught high school biology for thirty years. At our first meeting, she talked about what is involved with math education and the topic of math anxiety. 

“I want to give you one piece of advice about math,” she began. 

I somehow knew this wasn’t going to be pleasant.

“Students should do math not only in the classroom, but outside; give examples of real world problems. Many students dislike math because they find it irrelevant.” As a final proof to this statement she added that it is common for adults to say:”What on earth did I learn algebra for?” 

I let a few minutes pass as she talked further about relevance and I then said that in my experience with word problems or any kind of problems, the relevance to real-life never mattered to me. “The usefulness of algebra always seemed evident,” I said.

“That’s probably because you liked math and had an interest in it, and therefore had an inclination to learn it.  But there are some kids who, for whatever reasons, hate it, and have a hard time with it.”  It was clear she had given this “you’re the exception” argument before.  

The particular narrative that she was weaving very likely would fit the seventh grade class that I taught during my second year at the school.  They were a highly discouraged group of students with significant deficits in their math education.  I mention them now because a few days after school let out for the summer, I ran into someone who knew the students who were in my class.  He had heard about my being let go, expressed his regrets, and then said:

“You must know this. Your students love you. They tell me that they really learned a lot about math and that you were the best math teacher they ever had.”

I tell you this anecdote to provide “deep understanding” of any narratives you wish to supply.