Wednesday / June 19

How to Have a Happier Year in Math Class

What do you value most as a math teacher?

Imagine it’s the last day of this school year. You have one last chance to interview and collect data from your students about their experiences after a year in your math class.

  • What questions would you ask them?
  • What do you want them to believe about themselves and their math abilities? How do you want them to feel going into their math class next year? How do you want to be remembered by them in the future?
  • What data would nourish you and leave you feeling validated for all your hard work? How might this data reveal how you can get better and motivate you to flourish as you look forward to the year(s) beyond?

A more humanizing way to think about math class (and math teaching)

Our answers to these questions speak to our professional why—our purpose as a teacher and why we create the math classes we create. While our answers may vary, we all want the same thing at the end of this school year; —we want our students to have a positive relationship with mathematics as well as an empowered and productive math story. We want our see and hear our students:

  • believing that they are mathematically capable,
  • having an active sense of curiosity, resilience, and perseverance,
  • falling more in love with mathematics (and more in love with doing mathematics), and
  • feeling like they belong in math class and are excited about learning.

We all crave that “human data” that tells us that students  are authoring these types of thriving math stories. Achieving this type of human data nourishes our passion for teaching and keeps us going because when our work is grounded in what we value most, we feel validated, resilient, optimistic, courageous, and filled with a desire to improve. We feel professionally alive when we know we are having a positive impact on the lives of the students we serve. It’s an emotion I call “flourishment”—a professional state of being where we are nourished by our work in ways that inherently motivate us to flourish.

That’s why looking at data from standardized tests and traditional forms of assessment can be so discouraging. It doesn’t nourish us and it doesn’t tell us how we can grow. It simply tells us what our students know and don’t know, not how we can do better in ways that matter most to us—namely, creating math classes where all of our students are thriving and enjoying the lessons we’ve prepared. That’s what we all want more than anything: to create math classrooms that are joyful for both us and our students.

We want our students to have a positive relationship with mathematics as well as an empowered and productive math story.

Two ways we can have a happier, more humanizing year in math class

  1. If you want to be a happier math teacher this year, boost your efficacy, and feel better about the work you’re doing, I invite you to make a shift in your beliefs about your professional identity and the purpose of “math class”:

Measure your success less by the quantity of math content students learn in your class and measure your success more by the quality of math stories students are authoring in your math class.

When you do, you will position yourself to focus on what you value most: generating the human data that tells us our students are enjoying their time. You will be more professionally nourished as you move toward a more humanizing, inclusive math class—a space where more of your students can thrive and become not just mathematically capable, but also mathematically confident and curious.

  1. If you want to become a better math teacher, spend at least 10 minutes a week asking your students some form of the question: How’s math class going for you?

Elevate their voice and listen to their math stories. Collect data from them that can tell you how you can grow.

Invite them to call out your biases by asking: Have there been moments in math class when you didn’t feel like I believe in you? When we open up this way, we have more influence in our relationships with our students. We build trust and psychological safety by being vulnerable and authentically open to feedback (even if it’s sometimes painful).

Invite the feedback in writing, orally, or through pictures or interpretative dance. It doesn’t matter. Simply spend time sharing the authority in the room by elevating student voice. Show them that you have the courage to be an imperfect and unfinished human being—just like they are—and you’re looking for ways to experience more joy in math class and learn how to get better—just like they are.

Finally, don’t wait until the last day of school to do these things—start right now, today. I promise you: both you and your students will have a happier, more joyful, more humanizing year in math class if you do.

Written by

Chase Orton’s unique career path has been guided by his passion for creating productive and inspired math classrooms that are engaging and fulfilling for both students and their teachers. Author of The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher: A Journey to Reclaim Our Professional Growth, Chase invests his professional time partnering with districts that are interested in taking a teacher-centered, teacher-directed approach to professional development. Find out more at He is currently living a nomad life on the road collecting stories from math teachers across North America and wants to start a conversation with you. You can follow Chase on Twitter (@mathgeek76), YouTube, or join our Facebook Group: The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher.

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