You don’t need me to tell you how demanding and outright exhausting it is to be a classroom teacher. And given the realities of our professional landscape these days, many of us are more than just exhausted. Every passing day, I hear more stories of teachers who feel defeated, demoralized, and ready to be finished.
What is flourishment and why is it essential to our work?
Think of your best moments as a teacher—moments when you saw all of your students curious and thriving, developing positive identities, and actively engaging in thinking, reasoning, and debating with each other. Professionally speaking, nothing nourishes us quite like those moments, right? We feel validated, enthusiastic, and filled with a desire to flourish. I call that feeling “flourishment.” It is our most precious resource as imperfect teachers because it’s what keeps us going day to day and year to year and gives us the courage and resolve to remain unfinished and continually striving for better. I think we are all craving—needing—more flourishment, perhaps now more than ever.
Full disclosure, my background is in mathematics education and I primarily work with math educators, so I view and translate my thinking through the lens of math teaching. That said, anything you read here is generalizable. I’m so concerned about our collective sense of efficacy as teacher—especially math teachers—that I wrote a book about it. The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher: A Journey to Reclaim Our Professional Growth outlines a journey we—K-12 classroom math teachers and those who directly support our work—can take together to reclaim control over our professional growth and rekindle our sense of professional flourishment.
Here are three “beacons” that can serve as guiding principles for us on our journey to becoming more fulfilled and nourished teachers. For each of these beacons, I invite you to take a specific action that can nourish your teaching passion and help you discover ways that you can flourish at your craft.
Beacon #1: Flourishment requires a lot of grace because it requires us to break down the silos that divide us.
I want to tell you something: math class doesn’t work for all of my students. Even during those stretches when my flourishment is elevated, I know that some of my students aren’t having enough positive experiences in my classroom. And despite my best efforts, I know that there are always a few students who think less about themselves mathematically when they leave my classroom at the end of every school year. My failures trouble me deeply.
If you’re feeling insecure about your teaching expertise, you are not alone. Each and every one of us feels troubled, perhaps even a twinge of shame, by the outcomes we are experiencing in our classrooms. And if you’re thinking about quitting because you don’t feel like a very good math teacher, I want you to know that you belong, you are capable, you are not alone, and I am honored that you are my colleague.
I tell you this because being an imperfect and unfinished math teacher requires a lot of grace, and it’s something that we must learn to give to each other. The siloing effect of school structures and our teaching schedules normalize the professional act of teaching as a private practice conducted alone behind closed classroom doors. As a result, we often find ourselves without the necessary relationships we need to talk authentically about our teaching struggles and to collaborate together as active partners who support each other’s professional learning.
Action to help us break down the silos that divide us:
Find a teaching “buddy” or two or three. Meet a few times a month after school and talk about the passions that drive you as a teacher. Try to choose moments when you know that you can relax and not have to worry about what’s next.
Here are some questions to help you get started with having authentic conversations.
- What is your teaching story? Tell each other about your career path and how you came to the position you are in.
- What is your math story? Tell each other about your experiences in math class as a student. How might your personal relationship with mathematics impact your teaching, for better or worse?
- What does your ideal math classroom look, sound, and feel like? What “human data” are you striving to achieve with your students? What data are you seeing in your classroom that troubles you the most?
- What do you want your legacy to be as a teacher? How do you want to be remembered by your students? By your colleagues?
Beacon #2: Flourishment is something we must bring about for ourselves and each other as capable producers of our own professional knowledge.
We work in a system of math education that is designed to serve its own needs, not ours. The current structure of math education is designed to standardize the teaching and learning of mathematics, establish tools of accountability and assessment, enforce compliance to mandates by attaching funding to performance, and to implement these tasks as efficiently as possible in a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic approach. This top-down philosophy extends to professional development where we are positioned as passive consumers of our professional knowledge rather than capable producers of it. And despite decades of research that tells the professional development is underperforming, it has remained relatively unchanged. And it’s time that we do something about it.
Our need for a robust sense of professional flourishment is uniquely individual. It requires a teacher-centered, teacher-directed approach to improving the teaching and learning of mathematics in the classroom. We must take more ownership over our own professional development and position ourselves as capable partners in each other’s professional growth.
Action to help us direct our own professional learning:
Spend time in each other’s classrooms. Even 20 minutes every other week can be enough to help you shift some thinking. The purpose of these observations is not to evaluate your colleagues. You are there to watch math class from the student perspective and to think about your own math class and your own instructional craft. Even your presence in the classroom has a powerful impact on the students in the room. From their perspective, they learn to see us as life-long learners who are continually striving to improve.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself while you watch:
- What are students seeing from their perspective?
- What is being valued most in the classroom? Are students valued for giving the right answers? Or are they valued for their thinking and reasoning behind the answers they give?
- How is authority shared in the classroom? Are students expecting the teacher to be the answer key or do they turn to each other to see if their answers agree?
- How is student voice elevated in the room? How are they valued for what they already know from their lived experiences?
After observing, think about your own actions as a teacher in your own classroom. What might you do differently? How can you make math class work for more of your students?
Beacon #3: We find flourishment when we align our practice with our purpose.
In our current culture, we’re incentivized to value test scores as the measure of our success. The constant (and ever increasing) focus on assessment data continually threatens our sense of flourishment. Most of us didn’t become teachers because we wanted to treat our students like they’re test scores that need to be raised. Our teaching hearts are nourished by more noble calls to action such as social justice, equity and fairness, and the emotional well-being and intellectual development of the young people we teach. We want our students to feel capable, to be curious, and to have a math story that is unfinished. And we want to be remembered as loving mentors who challenged them and believed in them.
Action to help you align your purpose with your practice:
Imagine it’s the end of the school year, and you are interviewing your students about their math identity. What do you want your students to say about themselves? What beliefs do you want them to have about their math abilities? How do you want them to feel about themselves in math class next year? How do you want to be remembered by them in the years to come?
Your answers say a lot about your passions as an educator and what motivates you to flourish. With this in mind, collect data from your students that can help you improve in ways that matter to you. Too often, the only evaluative feedback in math class goes from us “down” to them. Find ways to elicit feedback from your students. These can be weekly surveys or “report cards” where students reflect and write about their experiences or they can be done orally as a group.
There are no quick fixes to the formidable obstacles we face. These three beacons may not be a magical salve for all that ails your teaching spirit, but I hope they help shift some thinking about what you need to be nourished as a teacher. I hope these actions help you find ways that you can grow your craft as a capable teacher passionate about the well-being of the students in your care.