Reflections on Failing Math, De-Streaming & the School Year Ahead

It’s been 25 years and I remember the summer of 1996 like yesterday. Excited to enter Gr. 11 where I could finally take the media courses I’ve been waiting for, I had to defeat my math demons first. 

Like the previous summer, I once again found myself taking a full-day July summer school math course. I was so envious of the students upgrading, who would head home at lunch before the classroom would become humid and filled with the stale air of student frustration. As I listened to Bush X and Oasis on my Walkman, I thought this would be my last year spending a July in summer school. It wasn’t. I would be there yet again the following year, closing of my trilogy of sorts. At least I was consistent. 

As a student in high school, I wasn’t all that academically inclined and this was especially true when it came to math.  Specifically, I wasn’t invested in math and schooling was not about “Growing Success,” as it is today. My teachers would teach in their way with some students flourishing and others faltering. 

When it came to math, I faltered.

I suppose looking back, I didn’t respond to respective teachers’ style of teaching, didn’t connect with the material, didn’t understand my own relationship with the learning and didn’t have the learning skills needed to find success in the face of such an adversary.  

I collided with barriers of my own doing and in some ways that of my teachers. I by no means blame my teachers, but do know that I felt removed from the experience compared to other courses of studies where my passion for media and film were nurtured by teachers who knew who I was. In retrospect, when it came to math, I had the ability to be successful on my terms during the regular school year but chose not to nor was I really encouraged. Teaching and learning was not what it is now where we recognize the value of knowing our learners and being responsive and relevant in how we teach. 

In my math classes, I would mask my vulnerability through humour. My jokes and clowning around was armour. Rather than being fully open about my needs, I protected myself through creating a personality of sorts. Because the teachers didn’t really know me, I created a character that was indifferent but ultimately wanted success that was hard to find. Also, I found that folks like me in de-streamed junior classes (Gr. 9 and 10) and then senior University courses (Gr. 11 – OAC), were not really welcomed guests. In many ways, it was easier to teach to the students who naturally flourished. I required more attention. Much more attention.

I once had a teacher who would loudly assert, “follow the formula,” when I didn’t understand a question. If I didn’t understand the formula, how would I be able to follow it? At that point, I stopped asking questions and turned to drawing in my notebook and writing my first screenplay – ambitiously the sequel to Mission Impossible.  Of course, this would be a sequel that would only live in my fantasy world.

After taking Gr. 9, 10 and 11 math in summer school, I finally passed Gr. 12 during the “regular season.” This was in large part to my teacher Mr. Deguida. He was a gentle soul, who recognized my desire to learn and equally the armour I would put up around me. He asked about my plans post OAC (Gr. 13) and really did connect with me. He nurtured success on my terms and took the time to support learners who would armour up. I remember my mark in his class was 74%. It was a huge win. I often think of him and how he passed away so young, many years ago. He wasn’t concerned about teaching math but students. He got it. 

Whether its the de-streaming math road ahead or any course, knowing our learner and supporting their self-regulation will be critical. Knowing our learners, is understanding their unique stories, their relationship with schooling along with their goals for learning and life beyond the classroom. Also, this recognizes that a student’s respective definition of success may be different from that of their teacher. When I was in math classes in Gr. 9, 10 and 11, success was deemed as 80% or more. If you weren’t’ an A student, you were made to feel lesser than. No student is lesser than and each student has their Everest to climb. It’s our job as educators to give them the tools and nurture the skills to make their climb. This also means, climbing alongside them.

As a high school VP, looking ahead to September comes with a focus on positive relationships with teachers, students and all members of the school community. COVID alone means that we must take extra time to connect and support teachers and students alike, as they navigate the weight out of what will be nearly 18 months of the pandemic.  For this to happen, we must be intentional in providing safe places to share, connect and support. I look forward to learning alongside teachers, sharing and navigating the road ahead with time, patience and understanding. We will be each other’s greatest resource and support.

Looking to students, the opportunity to share goals while self-regulating along the way is a critical one regardless of subject:

As a learning skill, self-regulation is assessed but is it often truly taught and practiced? 

As noted by Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL), of the US Department of Education, “good self-regulators have developed the skills and habits to be effective learners, exhibiting effective learning strategies, effort, and persistence. The key for instructors is to understand how to foster and train these skills in all students.”

For students to develop self-regulation they first must be able to share their story and set their goals for learning. In setting these goals they can then be supported on their learning journey based on where and who they are.

Like the new Pixar film Luca, where the title character navigates the human world as sea monster in disguise, young people when nurtured can and will thrive. This thinking isn’t new but we must be reminded of it, while fully seeing who the young people are. As Luca sets his own goals of winning the Portorosso Cup Race, he regulates and reframes along the way and ultimately finds his deepest success when fully seen and accepted for who he is.

While in the classroom as a Communications Technology teacher with a diverse group of learners, I did quite a bit of work around goal-setting and self-regulation. From overall goals for the semester to unit goals, students would assess their own progress through a rubric, all while I worked to be responsive to their respective needs and next steps.

With a focus on assessment for and as learning, my work was to reframe as needed as I was reminded that teaching is not a one size fits all practice. It sure did take quite a bit of work but it was purposeful and in most cases it worked. Students were motivated, content was refined and individualized, flipped practices were leveraged all while I grew in knowing the learner. In fact, even exams were individualized with questions pertaining to students’ respective goals. It was messy, imperfect but intentional.

Now when it comes to courses such as math, I most certainly don’t have the answers but know that I’ve personally experienced a highbrow approach that looks to prepare students for university. We must remember, not every student taking math will need it for university in the traditional sense or will be going to post-secondary. Rather the soft skills learnt as part of the journey will be transferable if they are nurtured with intentionality and care. As a beginning point, let’s start where learners are.

In the end, it’s not about what we teach but how and who we reach.

This entry was posted in Education, Educational Leadership and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.