Teaching is Unknowable

While I’m really enjoying teaching this year, the job is taking tremendous mental energy. I’m teaching three classes. One of them isn’t math. I’m thrilled. But it’s taking an enormous amount of work, because I have a very clear vision…not so much of what to teach or how to teach, but how I don’t want to teach the class. Having gone into the experience with my eyes wide open, I haven’t been disillusioned or disappointed by how much more difficult the class is. But I’m way outside my comfort zone—which is amazing in and of itself. I have a comfort zone in teaching math! Who knew?

But then, my math classes are outside my comfort zone, too. I’m teaching trigonometry for the first time and recall, folks, I’m not a mathematician. I know right triangle trig very well, know the graphs well, know the identities. But I’ve never taught it. The last time I taught a new class, pre-calc, I followed the book pretty faithfully the first time through—lots of lecture, lots of book work. I lost a good half the class in the first month, and while most of them were saved, I learned that for whatever reason, I should avoid lectures. The second through fourth times through I slowed it down, designed more activities, did less lecturing, and kept the whole class moving forward each time.

So the first time through trig, I’m trying to avoid straight book work. I’m helped here by more subject matter knowledge, and designed the opening unit to take advantage of this. I had some breathing room until I needed to dig in to the new stuff. The class definitely needed the time. Trig, like geometry, with all its facts and spatial notions, comes as kind of a shock after years spent having algebra processes beat into your head. So the class is going well and is, in fact, the closes thing I have to a comfort zone this year. Just one problem—I spent all that breathing room working on the brand new subject class AND…

…my Algebra 2/Trig class, and to explain what’s up with my A2/Trig class I have to discuss administration a bit, and so I want to be really clear that I’m not criticizing. Not only am I not criticizing, I fully acknowledge that there may be facts on the ground of which I am unaware.

Algebra 2/Trig is becoming, in many schools, an advanced class. It combines both algebra 2 and trigonometry in one class. So the kids currently in my trigonometry class took algebra II (also known as intermediate algebra), taking two years to go through what A2/Trig covers in one year. However, as most math teachers will tell you, it’s insane to actually cover second year algebra and trigonometry in one year (particularly in half a year, as our classes are set up). Trig often becomes little more than the unit circle, a brief run through identities, and lots of graphing (amplitude, period, and so on).

Lordy, I just cut two paragraphs of the history of Algebra II/Trig and a rumination on where the hell Pre-Calc started (does anyone know? I’d love a link). Stay focused, Ed.

The point is, I insist on teaching something approximating advanced math in Algebra II/Trig, because if I pass a kid, the next stop is Precalc. But there are only 14 kids in my A2/Trig class right now. And of those 14, only two, maybe four have any business being in A2/Trig. The rest should be in Algebra II, and they wouldn’t be getting an A.

But I couldn’t boot any of them down, because the Algebra II classes are filled to bursting—36 in two, 33 in the other. And I could only boot one of the advanced kids up to Honors A2/Trig (don’t get me started) because that class also has 36 in it.

I emailed all the administrators and saw two personally, pointing out what I thought was the obvious solution: convert my class to an Algebra II class, move some of the overloaded classes into mine. Take the two or three kids ready for A2/Trig and move them into honors, or just switch their schedule around. I pointed out that not only was this a better allocation of teaching resources, but also made a more equitable solution. For various reasons, my Math Support Class For Kids Who Hadn’t Passed the Exit Exam, had been cancelled because of section count. If I was only going to be teaching 14 kids, shouldn’t it be kids who really struggle and can benefit from the direct attention?

And for some of the same and some different various reasons, none of my suggestions were taken. Keep in mind we still don’t have a math teacher and are using a sub (but firing teachers–that’s the big pain point!). One history teacher left mid-September (for good reasons) and they had to hire someone. We were also dealing with the usual beginning of the year craziness, district mandates, and so on. Admins have their own insane workload, which is why I always laugh like a fiend at the idea that they should also be teaching experts.

Then, of course, what I proposed meant altering a lot of students’ schedules. I can’t blame them for saying no. You haven’t been to hell until you’ve done a master schedule, is the AVP motto, and filling that schedule is second.

So I’ve got 12 kids who struggle with most algebra one concepts in a class that, if I pass them, leads straight to pre-calc. I’m planning on putting most of them into trigonometry after this, assuming it’s allowed. The class has other problems on which I won’t elaborate, but planning takes much more time than one would expect for the only class I’ve taught before.

There are about a million and a half high school teachers. I can guarantee you that half or more of them right now have a story about this year similar to one or more of the three I’ve described above: new class in new subject, new class, weird class caused by administrative hassles. Or some other story, maybe like my second year of teaching All Algebra, All the Time. Or just administrative problems—unavoidable, or deliberately inflicted. And for those that are having a smooth start this year (as was true for me last year), we can all come up with another story from another year. Then there’s a whole group saying what, you’re only teaching three classes? Shut up with the whining! and then we can go a few rounds on block vs. traditional.

I’m not writing as much because I’m working my ass off, because even when I’m not working I’m thinking crap, I should be mapping out my next week, making copies, making tests, building some new curriculum, thinking up activities. Even now, I’m writing this because I think I can kick it out in an hour and get “my blog is being neglected” off my list of obsessions so I can go to Starbucks to read up on a topic to plan some lessons. I rarely can’t think of job-related tasks right at the moment. And remember, I’m not a workaholic and definitely not a control freak, two attributes commonly found in Teacherville.

How do teachers react to the demands of the job? It depends on their personalities. I would wager to say that most are like me and work harder when given a new challenge—whether effectively or not, who knows? Some undoubtedly just shut down and get stubborn. Still others meander around incompetently—not because they are incompetent, but because their job has been defined in such a way that it’s now no longer recognizably their job.

At this point, many teachers aggravate me by going the martyr route. See how hard it is to be a teacher? See how hard we work? And all for the kids!

No. I do this for the intellectual challenge. I see nothing incongruous in doing hours more work a week for the same pay, work that will not enhance my resume in any meaningful way, that won’t make it any easier to find a job should this school decide to dump me—and please God, they won’t. (Nor will doing this new work increase or decrease the likelihood that they will keep me, by the way.) I’m an idiot who spends hours a week researching for my blog unpaid, though, so I’m weird.

But can you blame people who do? Say your job for the past decade involved teaching AP Physics 5 times a day, and helping motivated kids learn how the world works, helping them pass a test that gives them college credit, and you were suddenly told great news! You’ll be teaching integrated science to 9th graders who don’t give a damn. So now you’ve got hours more work a week planning activities in an entirely different field for entirely different kids. And, by the way, you are pretty terrible at working with unmotivated kids.

Now if you’re me, the idea of teaching one subject for ten years is grounds for divorce. But not everyone’s me.

I’m not asking for sympathy or understanding. I’m asking for an awareness that no one has a clue what teaching is. Even other teachers can’t be certain what the job means in any universal sense.

The job of teaching is very nearly unknowable to outsiders, because outsiders don’t understand that teaching isn’t one job. Any one teaching position is actually a million interactions between the teacher’s personality, the subject(s) taught, the balance of classroom ability and interest, sculpted by administrative dictates, district and parent socioeconomics, state policy, and school logistics. What I think of as teaching another would consider anarchy. Other teachers hold jobs that I view as little more than sinecures, through little more than luck.

(Edited to add in what I thought was obvious, but comments here and at Joanne’s site (thanks for the link) seem to need explication:)

Obviously, many professions have similar complexity. Lawyering, doctoring, police work, nursing, professional atheletes–all have an enormous range of features from which the individual jobs are sculpted. And should we ever be seeking to describe one huge profession adequately in order to advocate for policy or position changes in the hopes of improving outcomes, saving money, or changing the nature of the people who enter that profession, its unknowability will also be relevant.

**end addition**

Which means please stop surveying 1600 teachers out of a group of 20,000 or so and trumpeting the results as indicative of teacher sentiment on Common Core. Which means stop coming up with plans to create world class teachers because no one agrees on what that is. Which means stop letting teachers testify about tenure and LIFO as if their opinions or experiences are in any way relevant (on either side). Which means, reporters and education writers, please stop saying “teachers” when you mean “elementary school teachers” because this, at least, is a distinction that’s easy to grasp and incredibly relevant.

For good reason, people are reluctant to acknowledge the many aspects of our population that makes teaching so many different jobs, so impossible to easily categorize. But as long as y’all are going to flinch on the big issues, stop pretending you understand teaching.


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20 responses to “Teaching is Unknowable

  • malcolmthecynic

    As somebody in two teaching classes right now and preparing for SEVERAL different field observation classes (I’d be in them already but it’s complicated), I genuinely look forward to it. Doing it for the intellectual challenge sounds like a good attitude.

  • Jake

    Uh, 1600 is a perfectly good sample size for a poll (the margin of error is 2.3%). Sure, the sample could be non-representative or the questions could be badly worded, but you seem to be taking issue with the sample size itself and that doesn’t make sense.

    • Mark Roulo

      1,600 is fine if the 1,600 are randomly sampled from the population in question. These 1,600 were not randomly selected.

      The sampling began with about 20,000 who agreed to paticipate in a 2013 poll (I can’t find enough details to know if this 20,000 is representative or not … I have my doubts). The 1,600 is a self selected subset of the original 20,000 who responded to follow up questions in 2014. So … a self-selected 8% from a sample of unknown quality. I’d be very cautious about these results.

      • educationrealist

        I agree with Mark. Then there are 3.7 million teachers, 2.5 of which are elementary, 1 mill or so are hs. Then they vary by subject, by student demographic. It matters very much that math and English teachers are feeling better about common core, not so much what science teachers think.

        The whole idea is insane, in addition to the self-selection mark brings up.

  • Mark Roulo

    When I was in high school, Algebra-II was a full year and trigonometry was 1 semester (so 1/2 a year), but we didn’t have pre-calculus. What does pre-calc teach? It sounds like the kids are getting a compressed algebra-2/trig sequence (which, I agree, seems very bad). But then they get another year before they get to calculus (well, another year compared to what I had). So maybe they do more algebra and trig?

    • cthulhu

      My high school had trig as the highest math; it ended up being 1.5 semesters of trig and the last part being intro to vector algebra. This was the late ’70s. My college engineering program was set up expecting that students would typically not have had calculus, so we did calc 1 and analytic geometry concurrently.

      My kids have recently completed pre-calc, and it is basically trig + analytic geometry. I think I’m glad I got what I did; a full semester (even if only 2 credit hours) of college analytic geometry is better than high school precalc less-than-one-semester of analyt. At least for me.

    • Roger Sweeny

      It sounds like Mark would like to read those “cut two paragraphs of the history of Algebra II/Trig and a rumination on where the hell Pre-Calc started.” I certainly would.

      BTW, nice post. “Reality, what a concept.”

  • anonymousse

    Wow. Teachers are such unique snowflakes that sampling methods, which work for every other profession and every other sample question, just can’t work with public school teachers. Say in unison: We are all unique!!!

    1600 is a fine sample size. Heck, 200 would be a fine sample size. Your other complaint: that it is not a random sample size, is completely valid. But its not what you originally said. You’ve changed the subject.


    • educationrealist

      It’s meaningless. You can’t be sure it’s representative. I’m not saying all teachers are special snowflakes.

      When was the last time you saw crosstabs on a teaching polls?

      For example, if I said “Obama’s approval numbers are in the low 40s” would you assume that blacks were disgusted with Obama? Of course not.

  • Tort

    Peter King, somewhat, writes about this ‘unknowingness of teaching’ in “Augustine on the Impossibility of Teaching.”


    I have Augustine’s book, “On The Teacher” on my shelf. But being like you, and spending too much time reading blogs and books on pedagogy, and too much time following the reform war, I miss the forest for the trees.

    The public treasuries won’t have enough in them to afford the kind of teachers that the educrats fantasize about.

  • retired

    “But as long as y’all are going to flinch on the big issues, stop pretending you understand teaching.”
    I am not sure who you are berating here, your loyal readers, or the public at large.
    Teaching is a unique profession but so are all professions. No one understands what it means to run a small law firm unless they’ve done it. Or engineers, CPA’s, etc. We are all snowflakes. J Except journalists who are PC morons. All good jobs are challenging but if you have the training and the chops then a good job is a joy. All through my career people told me “I don’t know how you do your job, it’s so hard.” Not for me, I had the right skill set for it. Same for teachers, only you work for the government which its own special hell.
    The big issues are well understood by those of us trying to wrest a decent education for our kids from the public school machine. The Voldemort issues are a big part. But so are large blocks of indifferent parents who don’t help with homework, vote in evil and woolly headed school board members and politicians. Then we get federal and state run education with crap like Common Core.
    At the local school level the lowest are the idiot administrators. Even when I was in grammar school it was obvious that the principal was a joke. And now as a parent I wonder how our current principal made it through college. My only beefs with teachers is that they are slaves to PC thinking and that the bad ones don’t get fired. While most are ok and argue all you want, I have endured bad teachers from kindergarten through grad school and now all over again with my kid.

  • Michael

    I would be interested in a post about how you approach discovering lesson ideas or lesson planning in general. What are your primary resources?

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