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4 Steps To Becoming The Thriving (Math) Teacher You Want to Be

As we head into a new school year, we see and feel the excitement and passion we teachers bring to a fresh classroom. How can we honor that feeling and sustain it through the school year? And how can we empower ourselves to become more supportive partners in each other’s professional journey to becoming the expert math teachers we want to be?

In my work with mathematics teachers, I talk a lot about our need for professional flourishment. You’ve felt flourishment before. It’s what you feel when you’re in the zone, in the flow, as a teacher. When, despite the challenges we face, we’re able to create classrooms where we see our students thinking, thriving, and happy.

Flourishment is a sense of professional well-being, efficacy, and resilience, which I think is something we all need right now as teachers. This job is too hard not to be in love with the work we’re doing.

This is the main idea covered in my book The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher: A Journey to Reclaim Our Professional Growth, which outlines a journey you can take with other teachers to foster the culture of professional learning you need to sustain, elevate, and expand your sense of professional flourishment. Here are the first four steps of that journey for you to consider. You can read about these more deeply in my book or learn about them in the free audio-video companion. This companion consists of 15-20 minute mini-episodes designed to help you feel more nourished, more whole—and put you in a position to accelerate your professional development and increase your sense of efficacy.

1. Position Ourselves as Capable. We are responsible for our own professional flourishment. The first step to becoming the thriving teachers we want to be is to take more ownership over our professional growth. The traditional approach to professional development isn’t working—and will continue not working—because it positions us as passive consumers of professional knowledge rather than active producers of it. We are our own best professional resource and we must learn how to see ourselves as capable, self-directed learners—individually and collectively. The journey to becoming an expert teacher is too arduous to do it alone. So this fall, reach out to some colleagues (on site or remotely) and invite them to take this journey with you. Learn more in Episode 1.

2. Become a Story-Focused Teacher. Our professional purpose is twofold. First, we want our students to know more math content. Second, we want our students to develop a positive disposition toward mathematics—we want to see them persevere, collaborate, take risks, and experience joy in math class. And by the end of the school year, we want them to leave our classrooms telling themselves a positive and healthy math story. The problem is our current system of education often only evaluates—and thus only seemingly cares about—the content-focused side of our professional purpose. Are we sticking to the pacing plan? Are we covering all the content? Are we teaching the curriculum “with fidelity”? Are we getting them ready for the standardized test? Did we raise test scores? These questions erode our sense of flourishment.

We didn’t become teachers because we wanted to train students to be test-takers. Our teaching passion is driven by more noble calls to action—such as the intellectual, emotional, and social well-being of the children we serve.

The second step is to become more story-focused in our professional identity by asking ourselves these questions instead: What beliefs do our students have about their math identity? What story are they telling themselves about their math abilities? What’s creating that story—and how do we change it? How do we create lessons where each student feels valued for what they bring into the classroom? When we ask ourselves these story-focused questions, we align our purpose and with our practice—and we position ourselves to feel more nourished by the work that we’re doing. Learn more in Episode 2.

3. Expand Our Capacity for Flourishment. To stay motivated as teachers, we must learn to focus on what we value most—seeing the human data that tells us our students are thriving. This can be hard because—as mentioned—we’re incentivized to primarily look at traditional forms of assessment data for evidence of progress. And this year, I invite us all to measure our progress by collecting data from our students about their experiences in our math classes. If you want to be a better teacher, ask your students. Interview them and ask them about their experience in your classroom. This will help you get the data you need to improve and refine your craft. Learn more in Episode 3.

4. Seek Vantage to Test Our Beliefs. Ever feel stuck as a teacher? I’m sure you have. We all get stuck. And the most effective way to get ourselves unstuck is to create some vantage on the story we are telling ourselves and ask ourselves: What’s really going on here? What do students see from their perspective? How are my actions being perceived? How might my thinking be inaccurate or incomplete? And the best way to create that vantage is to be in a colleague’s classroom watching a math lesson. It’s by far the best possible use of whatever student-free professional time you have. You will see whatever it is you need to see to get yourself unstuck.

But this can be scary, right? Opening up our classroom doors for others to see what’s not going well in math class? We must learn to give each other grace. We are all imperfect. If we can just admit that to each other, we open ourselves up to the support we need and learn to value the perspective of others. That’s why we must take this journey together—we need each other to help us see what we cannot see for ourselves. Learn more in Episode 4.

If you are a leader or an instructional coach, consider using these first videos to coordinate your professional development in a way that ignites teachers’ agency and positions them as active participants in their own professional learning. Additional videos will be added throughout this year.

See you down the road!

Written by

Chase Orton was a high school math teacher for 12 years. He is passionate about creating productive, inspiring, and engaging math classrooms that are humanizing for both teachers and their students. He currently invests his professional time partnering with schools that are interested in taking a teacher-centered approach to professional development. Learn more about The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher and decide if this journey is for you by Checking out this 3 minute Introduction video. You can also subscribe to the channel and receive updates as new episodes are released or sign up for Chase’s newsletter to stay in touch.

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