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Guest blog at ment2teach

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It has taken me a while to think of myself as a teacher who has something to offer to other teachers. In many ways I am still very young and inexperienced, and there’s no shame in admitting that – it would be a greater mistake to pretend otherwise! Yet at the same time, I’ve come to a point in my career where I’ve made enough mistakes and experienced a broad enough range of situations that I actually do have some things of value to pass on to pre-service and early-career teachers. That’s why I’m excited about ment2teach, a new initiative launched by Jennifer Michalski.

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Among other things, ment2teach is a space and a platform to facilitate mentoring relationships between teachers. I know how important mentoring is – I was incredibly fortunate to have spent my first six years teaching in a faculty where basically all the staff took it upon themselves to mentor me in one form or another – and I believe it’s one of the best ways to learn. Life’s too short to learn from your own mistakes – if you want to get anywhere, you need to piggyback on the experience of others.

Apart from offering myself as one of the mentors there, I’m also contributing to the ment2teach’s blog. In fact, my post there – “The missing ingredient” – is the first one published on the site. It’s the first in a series, and over the next two weeks I’ll be posting the rest. Happy reading!

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Riding the wave: why I started a new Youtube channel

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I really admire intentional people. I mean the kinds of people who think about what they want to achieve, set goals to get them on the right path, and then go out to strategically accomplish their objectives. Those people inspire me: they show me what’s possible when you set your mind on something and then pursue it with all your strength and discipline.

But I’m not one of them. At least, I definitely don’t feel like one. Many of the things I would consider my greatest achievements have arisen from things that took place accidentally or out of my control. I feel like a surfer who just happened to be at the right spot at the right time to ride a wave into the shore.

For instance, my Youtube channel – which is what I’m most well known for at the moment – was never intended for wide public consumption. I started shooting and uploading videos for just one boy I taught two years ago. He was very unwell and missed huge amounts of school due to hospital visits, so I put things up on the channel so he could keep up with us when he was away. This is a little embarrassing now, but I initially made the videos public simply because I didn’t want to deal with the headache of adjusting privacy settings on every single thing I uploaded!

Since the videos were freely available, others started asking if they were allowed to watch too. It started with the other students in my class – no one else knew I was doing this, and they only knew because they saw me setting up my recording equipment each lesson. From there, it spread to students in other classes, mainly Extension 2 students who had glossed over the 2-Unit topics in class and wanted an actual explanation of things like Series and Sequences. And before I knew it, students from other schools – and even other countries! – were watching along.

All of this blew me away. As I said, none of it had been intentional. I never set out to have a popular Youtube channel; it just kind of happened by itself. But at the same time, it wasn’t all that surprising. Mathematics is, at its essence, the same everywhere – and in fact for most of school across the world, it’s compulsory – so it wasn’t that unusual that I found a wider audience of students. What surprised me most, though, was when the people who commented and emailed me weren’t students. They were teachers.

Why would teachers be watching my videos? The videos are aimed at students, not educators. But then I realised why it made sense. In mathematics – not to mention a hundred other areas of human endeavour – one of the key ways to learn is by example. Yes, you can explain the concepts or principles as much as you like – but what does it look like when you _use_ those principles? What do those concepts look like in action? This is why observations form such a helpful part of initial (and continued!) teacher education: there’s nothing quite like seeing someone else actually do something to help you wrap your head around how you might do it.

And that’s what my videos were helping to provide. Just one example of how to go about explaining things. Not the only way, nor the best way – just one way. And apparently there’s a need out there for this kind of thing. Then I thought to myself – are there things I would say to or upload for teachers if I had a channel just for them? And I realised the answer was yes.

So, in light of the opportunity that’s standing right there – to offer practical and thought-provoking content to hundreds of pre-service, early career and even experienced mathematics teachers out there, for free – I’m starting Wootube²: videos for anyone and everyone interested in mathematics education. I’d be lying if I said I have a huge amount of time to invest in the channel – this is most definitely a side project – but I already have tons of ideas for material to post that I hope will be helpful in developing teachers and cultivating constructive discussion around teaching and learning mathematics. If you are a maths teacher and you have ideas or requests for things you’d like me to do on the channel, please contact me and let me know. Otherwise, subscribe and stay tuned!

What is this pizza worth?

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First, answer the questions on this survey.

 

 

 

 

 

Second, check out the results here.

A response to: the transcience of sharing

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Last week, Simon Job – the creator of MathsLinks and its attendant sites – wrote a post called The transcience of sharing.

Simon is a sharer par excellence, not to mention a generally thoughtful and down-to-earth guy. So when he talks (types), I listen (read). Essentially, in his post he is posing this very valid question:

Why is sharing happening on social media (where it is transient) rather than on platforms that are clearly built for it and superior to it in almost every way (e.g. MathsLinks)?

This is a question I’ve thought about too – and it’s bugged me. Over the last few months, these have been the thoughts percolating around my head.

  1. (a) It’s where the community is active, which motivates the poster. In the right space, at the right time, it will gain a responsive audience and that response is a very powerful motivator.
    (b). It’s where people visit, every day and for no particular reason, which is how the viewer sees it in the first place. People come to dedicated sites like MathsLinks when they (i) are after something, (ii) have the presence of mind to look for what someone else has made/found first, and (iii) have the time to commit to browsing for a little while. That happens far less often than people pulling up their social media feed of choice (which seems to happen reflexively once people get to a bus stop or train station these days).
  2. Precisely because it does not aim to preserve, only the trendy and really engaging things bubble up to the top (either through Facebook’s black magic sorting algorithm or Twitter’s more organic system of retweets).
  3. I alluded to this above, but MathsLinks (and other similar repositories like TES Australia and Scootle) has become its own worst enemy by being so good. There are hundreds of objects there – which is awesome, but also means that a new user doesn’t even know what’s there or where to begin. There’s awesome stuff there but (coming back to the time issue that has already been identified) someone needs to commit to searching thoughtfully through it to find what will be useful to them in the present moment. This is an issue with faculty resource files just like it is for MathsLinks.

So what can be done to improve the situation? I have a handful of thoughts, corresponding to the points above.

  1. Clearly, MathsLinks is awesome as it is. We just need to connect it with the community more effectively. I feel like this is a market problem – it’s a great product, in a quiet spot. Stick it in the middle of George Street and it’ll go nuts because people will be exposed to it more frequently and the conversation about how good it actually is will spread from there. How practically to do that in our context is another question entirely, though.
  2. Maybe there needs to be a dedicated team (and by team, I mean more than just Simon) of people dedicated to capturing those cool posts when they come up on social media and then preserving them. We don’t want to discourage the spontaneous sharing and ensuing discussion; we want to leverage it and keep it somewhere that it can be found for future reference.
  3. Perhaps we need to do something like a “weekly featured resource”? I have considered doing something like that in my department with “my best lesson this week” as a regular feature of faculty meetings. It would just help people become aware of the riches that are hidden away there, rather than letting them gather digital dust in the cellar of the internet.

Just some food for thought.

Working out irregular areas

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What strategies can we use to find out the area of the top playground? What information will we need?

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My not-so-new workspace

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12 months ago I moved to a new school and had the fun task of setting up my desk from scratch (again). It was very bare back then – this is how it looks now:

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As you can see, the whole thing is rather more filled out than before. My shelves are now looking a little healthier (or they may need to lose a bit of weight, depending on your preference) and my screens seem to have grown and multiplied. (Seriously, trying to do any kind of timetabling on a single monitor? Practically an invitation to madness.)

I’m feeling a lot more settled and directed heading into 2015 – I guess that’s to be expected since this is my second year in the role. Nonetheless, there is plenty of change afoot – a couple of new staff in my faculty, and I’m very excited about the energy they’re going to bring to the table. One thing’s for sure: there are interesting times ahead!

 

Teaching outside the classroom

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Hey Eddie, I got offered a full time job next year. Pretty excited but I want to be an active member within the school, rather than just doing the teaching component. So for example I want to participate in extra curricular activities within the school. But i was wondering if that is something a first year out teacher should do, considering the workload? What are your thoughts on that?

What a fantastic question. It comes from a really good heart that wants to get involved but also wants to be realistic about its own limits (and believe me, in your first year of teaching you will definitely confront your limits!). This is something I personally feel very strongly about, and I’m glad you’re thinking about very consciously rather than just falling into the path of least resistance.

Full disclosure: every year that I’ve been a teacher (including my first), I’ve been deeply involved in activities outside the classroom. That probably gives you an indication of the kind of advice I’m about to give. But now what’s important is that I justify it!

To answer your question, I need to pose a question back to you first. And that question is: what is a teacher’s role? What is a teacher actually supposed to do? You’ll note that I did not ask, “What is a teacher’s job?” or “What is a teacher paid to do?” I don’t want to know what the minimum expectations are; I want to know what it actually means to be a teacher, what it should mean, what it ought to mean. As a teacher, who are you? Why do teachers exist?

Your answer to my question will define the answer to your own question. I’ll show you how I answer each one in turn.

As a teacher, who am I? Why do I exist? I am a role model, an instructor, a mediator, a mentor, and a coach. I exist to do everything I can to bring people through the journey from being a child to being an adult. That includes standing in front of a classroom and explaining things – a lot of it – but it includes so much more. It includes teaching children how to relate to their peers – and those who aren’t their peers. It includes being an example of character and integrity. It includes forcing students to challenge their own limits even when they don’t want to – and proving to them that they are capable of more than they believe they can do. It includes showing them why they shouldn’t always do things even when they are capable of doing them. It includes helping them understand right and wrong in the nitty gritty of everyday life where things aren’t black and white. It includes helping them see their true role within their family, within their group of friends, and within broader society. It includes training them to work effectively with others.

So what am I supposed to do? Does my role end when my students and I walk out the door of the classroom? Not a chance. In some ways, that is just the beginning. I can think of two primary reasons – among hundreds – why teachers must participate in school activities with their students.

  1. In those other activities, you are still teaching. A lot. You are still explaining and training and helping students to learn. In fact, you are helping them to learn a whole host of skills and knowledge that cannot be taught in a classroom setting. I think back to my days as a touch football coach, and the many mornings I spent out on the oval teaching my team how to be a team. I’m confident that the lessons I taught out on the field will be some of the most enduring memories of school for the boys and girls I had on my squad. So if you’re a teacher, you should be out there doing that. Why would you pass up that golden opportunity?
  2. In those other activities, you see students in an entirely different light that will help you to understand them better and be a better teacher to them when you are back inside the classroom. Conversely, your students will see you in an entirely different light and that will help them learn more effectively too. Whether it’s sport or photography or army cadets or prefects, each activity you’re involved in helps you see a different side tip your students. Often a student who seems to do badly in your class has meant wonderful skills in other areas, and discovering those will help you appreciate them and give you opportunities to reach out to them (rather than them constantly disliking you because you are merely the teacher of the class they hate the most). Just like air is the medium for sound, I believe that relationship is the medium for learning. And every avenue along which you can form a better relationship with your students will help you to teach them more effectively.

So you can see I have a pretty firm stance on this one. I think it’s a no-brainer to get involved with school activities wherever you can. In fact, hopefully my two reasons above help you to see why I don’t think it’s actually accurate to call them “extra-curricular” activities (since “extra” literally means “outside of” and “separate to”). I think the name “co-curricular” activities is far more appropriate (because it helps us to see that the learning taking place in such activities runs in parallel to the learning taking place in classrooms).

That brings us to the question, then, of time. You wisely ask if these activities are “something a first year out teacher should do, considering the workload”. To be sure, any and all activities you engage in will take a significant investment of time (if you do them well, that is – and you should). There are only so many hours in the day and that means the time you spend on activities will inevitably take away from your time spent on other tasks related to classroom teaching.

But this fact remains true throughout your teaching career; it’s not like you hit some magical point in your fifth or tenth or twentieth year where you say, “Great, I’ve perfectly mastered my classroom teaching now, so with I’m going to devote some of my wonderful newfound spare time to some activities!” That day never comes. Teaching by its very nature is all-consuming. It’s a bottomless pit that will swallow up however much time you throw at it. You can always plan a more innovative lesson. There is always a new tool or technique or technology to try out. You can always spend more time helping out students after class. And there will always be new opportunities to broaden and deepen your understanding of your subject area.

None of these are bad things – they are the reasons why we as teachers never need to get bored! But they do mean, in my opinion, that you shouldn’t wait indefinitely to get involved in school activities. I would wait an absolute maximum of twelve months, because admittedly the very first year is not just your entry into teaching but into full-time work itself, and that can be pretty traumatic. But after a year, it’s time to take the plunge. Yes, it will take some time out of your 24 hours. It’s so worth it, though, that I don’t think you’ll look back.