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What is your problem? Part I

Posted on November 17th, 2011 by David Coffey

My problem is that I tend to teach as I was taught. I know that research shows that I am not alone in this, but I thought I had gotten over this hurdle. Since 1990, I have been teaching math differently – and I have the student comments and parent phone calls to prove it. The changes I made as a math teacher were one of the reasons I became interested in mathematics education. Unfortunately, these changes did not transfer to all aspects of my teaching.

Early in my career as a math educator, I began doing observations of novice teachers in their first practicum experience. I remember going into classrooms and watching lessons that failed to meet the principles of good mathematics teaching suggested by the NCTM. After an observation, I would sit down with the novice teacher and play “fix the lesson.” I would share with the novices everything that was wrong with their teaching and what they could do to improve it. I left feeling as though I was making a difference in math education, much as my university supervisors must have felt after filling me with their ideas.

Then, one day I took a deep breath. I had just watched an awful lesson where the teacher read the overhead to her students, who were sitting in rows, and then had them work independently on 30 problems from the textbook. I was getting ready to share my fixes when the novice teacher spoke up.

“That didn’t go the way I wanted it to go,” she said. “If it were my class, we wouldn’t be in rows but in groups so that students could learn from one another. And I wouldn’t assign all those problems. I would ask the students to pick out the ones they think they needed practice on. But, you know, I am a guest in this classroom and I need to follow the cooperating teacher’s plan. Also, I normally don’t read the overhead slides but I saw that Jamal didn’t have his glasses and I wanted to be sure that he could participate.”

I do not remember how I responded but there was the sense that my points of judgment were being ticked off one-by-one – check, check, and check. My problem had reared its ugly head once again but this time in terms of teaching teachers. I was doing what had done to me. It was time for another change.

Fortunately, I was introduced to a literacy coach from The Learning Network at about the same time. When I shared my problem with her, she responded with two pieces of information. The first was how her motto, “Unsolicited advice is an insult,” influenced her practice. The second was the book, Literacy Coaching: Developing Effective Teachers through Instructional Dialogue by Marilyn Duncan. These led to the thing that most affected my teaching of teachers – action plans.

In chapter two of her book, Marilyn Duncan describes action plans as follows:

The action plan is also a tool to focus the support provided by the coach. It allows the coach to see where the teacher needs feedback. It provides the coach with a window into what the teacher already knows and has tried. It becomes a planning tool for their job-embedded work. (p. 20)

Here is her example:

With colleagues from the GVSU Mathematics department, I adjusted the action plan to meet the needs of our novice mathematics teachers. Our form asked:

  • What is my current challenge in teaching for mathematical literacy? Four areas were suggested (assessment, evaluation, planning, or instruction), based on our work with the Teaching-Learning Cycle.
  • What do I already know about this?
  • What questions do I have?
  • Which one of these questions do I need to focus on to develop my understandings?
  • How will I develop my understandings?
  • What support do I need to enact my action plan?
  • How will I monitor my progress?

This framework provided a way for novice teachers to ask for help, which meant that our advice would nurture their developing practice rather than insult it.

My experience in student teaching ‘taught’ me that observations were intended to be dog-and-pony shows where I was expected to impress the observers. Consequently, I was actually concealing my flaws from the person best situated to help me address them. I cringe when I think about all the teachers I passed that same lesson on to early in my career. Action plans have been my amends and I have been amazed by the results.

This action plan from one of our student teachers demonstrates the power of the approach. The plan helped him to self-identify his “problem” and articulate where he wants to be. It provided me with something to focus on. Without this focus, it is easy for me to fall back into my old pattern of judging lessons based on what works for me. It is interesting that by asking teachers to identify their challenges, I have been addressing my own.

In future posts, I plan to share other examples of how these action plans have aided our efforts to support the development of effective mathematics teaching.

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