In 2012, after several years of teaching math and science in a private school, I took a job as the only math teacher at a new International Baccalaureate program in Indianapolis Public Schools. It was an IB school that would demand that all of these urban students take the full IB Diploma Program. It was the only school of its kind in the United States.
We Started with sixty freshmen students. Thirty of them were in my Algebra class. In Indiana, at that time, algebra students were required to pass the end-of-course assessment (ECA) in order to graduate from high school. My principal took me aside in January and said, “John, we have to get the scores.” I knew exactly what he meant. We were a special program in a large school district that had a reputation for trying new things but eventually always regressing to the same old methods and ideas. To survive, we needed to create enough momentum to overcome the inevitable calls for us to go “back to normal”.
I drilled those kids to within an inch of their lives. I got online drill software and online worksheet generators. Drill Drill Drill. I kept them after school. I guarded the buses to make sure they didn’t try to skip after-school math drill. Near the end, I bought them pizza and made them sit together at lunch to do more worksheets.
Now you are expecting me to say it didn’t work and you are wrong. It did work! We had 100% passing the ECA. An amazing accomplishment in a district that had some of the lowest passing rates in the state. We cheered our success. I think they may have been planning to build a statue of me. (maybe not). But, with similar success on the English ECA, there was a bit of fanfare and we all looked towards an amazing future where we might actually change education.
And now the story takes a turn. Since I was the only math teacher for the first two years and kept these students for the following two years, I had a unique opportunity to watch them progress all the way through the IB Math Studies course in their senior year. And I noticed some things that gave me concern. I kept having to teach the same material every year! They were able to do well enough, but they didn’t seem to retain many of the skills. And I could not blame the previous teacher, because that was me. I had to face the reality that I WAS AN INEFFECTIVE TEACHER!
Rather than settle into a malaise or leave teaching, I decided to figure out what I was doing wrong.
I walked over to the library that was across the street from my house. I did some lesson planning and graded some papers, but mostly I was lost in thought. I took a break and walked through the aisles. On a whim, I looked up math education on the kiosk. I went over to where the two books were located. One of them was “Mathematical Mindsets” by Jo Boaler. And I began reading. What I discovered was that I was indeed not teaching according to the best math practices and research, but neither was almost anyone else.
I read more books, joined NCTM, devoured magazines, searched for blogs and attended all the training I could get. Within one year, I transformed my class to a project-based environment where everyone’s potential was recognized and encouraged. The kids loved it. They worked on white board activities I wrote for them and were encouraged to be creative with their math and recognize its beauty. Many times I heard positive comments from my students. I watched them discussing their unique approaches to problems and nagging questions as they walked away down the hallways. I heard comments like, “this class really goes fast”. They came alive in math!
I wrote many white board activities and tried several other rich activities in my class. They came early and resisted leaving.
After a year or so, I began to think about other teachers who were still teaching in the traditional ways. I began to talk to teachers and offered to come run an activity with them in their classrooms. I was lucky to have a first period prep in a block schedule. Every other day I was free until 10:30.
I signed up to be a “Change Agent” with TeachPlus in Indianapolis. When I was selected, I was given a stipend and invited to monthly training meetings with the other change agents. I asked them if they would allow me to visit their classrooms. I traveled to many classrooms that year from third grade to twelfth grade. Teachers saw the power of a project-based math classroom.
The next year, I began presenting at conferences. My presentations were well received, but sometimes I felt like I was preaching to the choir and maybe even the choir directors. The teachers who needed to hear my presentations were not at the conference. And elementary teachers were particularly absent. They simple did not have time to attend.
I realized that, in order to bring the best practices of math education to them, I would need to go to where they are. Being a classroom teacher, I was unable to do that. I was getting more requests and more inquiries, so I knew it would have to happen. But I would have to wait until I was vested in public school and when my military retirement started. Both happened in 2022.
In 2019, I took a job at a K through eight building. The deal was that I would teach Algebra and Geometry to seventh and eighth grade students and have time to be in K to six classes. I spent three years working with students down to kindergarten and learning everything I could about elementary and middle school math education by reading what I could, attending multiple training classes and partnering with some of the best teachers I have known. My final NWEA scores for my Pre-Algebra, Algebra and Geometry classes averaged in the Above Average range or above. My Geometry students all scored above the chart with an average of 265. When people asked why my scores were so high, I simply said “they worked really hard”.
On May 25, 2022, I will graduate from classroom teaching and will dedicate the rest of my life to training teachers where ever I can find them.