yo ho a teacher's life for me

When education is hard to swallow

There are many times when education is hard to swallow. Look at education “reform” in this country. It’s pathetic. But there are a lot more mundane day to day examples too.

The truth is that we encounter these little things every day, sometimes so often that we fail to notice them. Sometimes when we do notice them we consider them failings on our own part, or on the part of “the system” as a whole. Sometimes this is true, but many times it is not the case.

In the school where I teach third grade, each subject for elementary school is taught by a homeroom teacher, except for math. For math class, students are assessed at the beginning of the year and place into ability-groups. These range low, medium low, medium high, and high. The coursework and curriculum for each group is relatively the same (until supplemental help is needed or additional practices, or more challenging problems for high achievers, etc.) – what is different between classes is the pacing and speed with which the material is covered.

In past years I taught the high classes, and it was a delight.

This year, I was asked by admin to teach the low class, so that more students could get more thorough help. I begrudgingly agreed, since it was clearly just a formality to be “asked.”

Holy cow I couldn’t have imagined how difficult it is to teach basic math concepts, even just to 11 of the most struggling students!!! I’m talking addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Adding and subtracting was covered in both first and second grade, and yet these third graders cannot do it. Multiplication was new, but with the sheer time spent drilling facts, they should at least have the concept of what multiplication is down by now. Same with division. Even if they struggle through each problem, understanding that multiplication and division are opposites, or that multiplying yields a greater answer while division yields a lesser answer… But no, it is all lost on them.

I didn’t give up though. We went back over and over and over each concept again and again, as if we’d never seen it. Still nothing. No improvement. Just blank stares and nose picking.

We also have to cover metric and standard measurement of length, weight, distance, volume, etc. And fractions. And graphs of varying sorts. And money. And shapes and basic geometry. Area and perimeter. So many topics that are impossible to compute without knowing how to ADD AND SUBTRACT.

I’ve been beating my head against a wall over this for weeks. I have sought help from admin, from parents, tutors, and teaching team members. The high school math department. Online resources. Everything I can think of, constantly at bat to find a way to help these kids (who honestly couldn’t care any less than they do) to survive 3rd grade math. These kids will surely fail 4th grade math if they can’t make it through 3rd grade math. So surely there must be something I can DO!

Well this is the grand epiphany.

It took a long time of teachers and admin repeating to me that it wasn’t a lack on my part – that I was teaching to the best of my abilities, and that they are learning to the best of their abilities. It took a long time of “this is the best we can expect” for me to realize that they were telling me that I have done all that I can and that that is okay.

I still didn’t (don’t) want that to be correct. But it is correct.

There are plenty of adults out there who never mastered 3rd grade math. Some are in dead end jobs or unemployed, but the majority of them walk among the rest of us, unbeknownst to us. They’ll survive.

It’s just been hard for me to think of 4 or 5 of 11 students not passing because it is such a large portion of my class. But when you think of it as being 4 or 5 students out of 80+ third graders… it isn’t an astronomical figure.

I guess I’m in the “denial” stage of grief or whatever you want to call it. I don’t want any of my students to fail. But these kids came to me with no knowledge of math, and here they are months later. They’ve learned some meager bits and pieces, even if their understanding is low, it isn’t non-existent anymore. In very tiny ways I have succeeded already, even if grade-wise, these students don’t pass.

The epiphany, for those in the back, is that I’ve done all I can, and that’s actually enough. That I am a good teacher, and some of my students will still fail. That I have done everything in the realm of possibility, and this is the outcome.

Moving on!

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