Struggling math students get the shaft. Happens all the time.

After months of daily math teeth-pulling (all chronicled in my prior blogpost The Math Teacher Miracle that Changed My Life), my math-hating, class-skipping, homework-allergic, test-phobic, struggling math students all passed Virginia’s Geometry Standards of Learning (SOL) test.  It was a shock and awe scenario.  Why?  Because this class, my class, had already been written off by Admin and was expected to fail miserably.

But, TA DA! They were wrong.

Admin had their miracle. I should be ecstatic.

Miracles happen.

However, I only felt regret. Like, immediate heartsick regret.  My allegiance had been to the system, not to the students. My strategies had worked, but did passing really make a difference for any of my students?  Sure, they temporarily celebrated passing the test, but life isn’t a multiple-choice test, and their enthusiasm over passing had no long-lasting value. 

They had trusted me.  But I was a fraud. 

Teachers teaching to the test for students who struggle with math

A few weeks later, my math administrator complimented my well done work. 

“But, sir, I didn’t teach them any math.”

That’s when he asked me to teach the other geometry teachers how to do what I did. 

“Did you hear me?  I didn’t help these kids. They don’t know any actual geometric concepts because I really only focused on teaching them how to beat the test.”

His response. “Okay. Show the other teachers how to do that.”

Teachers collaborate to help students who struggle with math.

People have different goals, I get it.  His goal in his position was to improve the metrics for the school system.  My ultimate goal, though, was to improve the life of the individual student.  And I had tricked those struggling math students into thinking I had helped them.

I realized that I had an innate need to make a positive difference in the life and the future of a student. My passion for helping kids succeed exceeded my willingness to succumb to the goals of a system.

That’s why I quit. 

Was quitting scary?  Crazy scary.  Did I know exactly what my job plan was? Not a hint.  But I knew I couldn’t continue to “pretend teach.”  I couldn’t give “less than my best” even if that’s what I was being paid to do. I just couldn’t.

Fast forward three years, and I’m still teaching…but this time on my terms.  I work one-on-one with students 40+ hours per week at my house.  It’s Calculus one hour, Geometry the next, and then maybe Prealgebra after that.  The course, the student, and the needs always change. 

I assess skills without ever giving a test.  Then I teach, direct, and sometimes redirect. I explain concepts one way for Joe and a completely different way for Trish. Whatever it takes. They share their lives, so I get to listen, and cheerlead, and celebrate, and encourage. We talk math and school and college and dreams; we talk sports and family and love interests and decisions.  I’m sure I give the same advice that their parents give, but somehow, in a world where they think their parents don’t understand, I get to be the adult that they trust. That beats Teacher of the Year by light years.

Never have my relationships with students been so rich. Never have I felt so fulfilled. 

I was born for this.

All students struggle with math.

Because my work spans elementary math through calculus, I have a unique vantage point from which I can see the skills that are really necessary for any given class. I get to see where kids are struggling individually as well as where there are obvious holes in our curricula.  And I hone in to address those deficits.

There’s no judgment here. Kids have a safe place to admit weaknesses—where their peers aren’t looking, where their teachers aren’t expecting, and where their parents aren’t hovering.

I teach some of the most gifted math students in high school, and even they fail to retain information from their myriad classes over the years.  After years of calculator-dominated classrooms, it’s not uncommon for me to reteach two-digit multiplication to students preparing for a “no calculator” college entrance exam or to review how to borrow while subtracting with calculus students.

Today’s students are pressured to be good at everything.  They are exhausted and overwhelmed, barely keeping their heads above water while trying to present a confident façade to the world.   

So, I teach.  Then I reteach in a nuanced way.  And if I need to, I reteach again as though I’ve never said it before, building their confidence while developing their competence. 

“You have to care about your learning MORE than your teacher cares about your learning,” I constantly croon.  It’s not that the teachers don’t care.  They do.  But…teachers are pressured…just like I was pressured…to make the system happy.

Teachers matter.

The system says that my pass rate for that Geometry class was a math teaching miracle.  But the real miracle?  Well, the real miracle changed my life.  My SOL pass rate regret (in the face of the system’s triumph) fueled me to make a move, to not look back, and to step into a chaotic world to do something that, while scary, allowed me to fulfill my purpose and to be filled in the process. There’s the real miracle. I get to live that miracle everyday.

And my commute from the back of the house is pretty sweet…so, there’s that.

Live your passion.