This is an essay I submitted to a journal that was not accepted. I enjoyed writing it so I still want to get it out so I thought I’d share it here. I hope that someone else will enjoy reading it!
Motivation through my Shifting Inner Dialogue
For the past 15 years as a teacher, and now teacher educator, I have shifted my internal dialogue about what it is I do as a teacher. These shifts were not entirely intentional and it was only recently that I took the time to reflect on the changes and the ways in which they manifested in greater motivation for and satisfaction with the work I do every day. I still find it shocking that the ways I discuss, with others and internally, what my work entails so clearly reflects my practice and perspective.
When I started teaching, when people asked what I did for a living I would say, I teach mathematics to students. This is a common way to describe one’s work as a high school mathematics teacher and it is also reflective of traditional models of teaching. To say I teach mathematics to students is to center me as the teacher and portrays the notion that I am doing something to students rather than with students. This interpretation of my description reflected well my early work in the classroom.
Early in my career, I tended to create lessons based on the content that I was teaching without much consideration of the students I would be teaching that content to. However, as I taught in this way, I noticed I was not reaching all of my students and so, over time, I began to center my students more and more as I planned and implemented lessons. These shifts in my practice came alongside a shift in my description of what I did. After several years, when people asked what I did I told them that I teach students mathematics.
This shift in description was also reflected a change in my teaching practice. As a more experienced teacher, I was centering students; I taught students mathematics. I realized the human beings I teach are the most important (and interesting) aspect of my work; content is second. When we think about our students first, we can then better think of how to create access and equity for our students, as we teach mathematics. With this new perspective, I found myself motivated and continually challenged to first know my students and then figure out ways to help them learning interesting and meaningful mathematics. It was always a challenge and it was (almost) always rewarding.
This shift was a good start in reconceptualizing my career, but I have since further reframed my practice, and perhaps consequently or concurrently, my view of what I do as learning about students’ mathematical thinking.
This shift has required some further reflection. If we consider the definition of a teacher, according to Merriam-Webster (2018), as “one whose occupation is to instruct”and the definition of what it means to teach including:
- to cause to know something
- to cause to know how
- to accustom to some action or attitude
- to guide the studies of
- to impart the knowledge of (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/teaches)
We see a portrait of teaching that likely aligns with the majority of those in the United States. Among each of these meanings the implication is the teacher contains the knowledge and he or she is sharing it with others. This just doesn’t seem to be enough to motivate me; the interesting thing about being a teacher is that I get to work with students! Students are pretty much absent from these definitions. I needed to think more about why do I have students in my room with me and what they contribute.
When we consider the definitions of learning we see they include “to gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience.” I like framing my work as the work of a learner because it reflects that I, the teacher, am not just imparting knowledge; I am learning something by engaging in my work. I am even more inspired by the other definitions:
- to come to be able
- to come to realize (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/learn)
With the description of my work as learning about students’ mathematical thinking, I now enter my classroom wondering about what I will learn from my students today. What will I learn about their understanding of whatever it is I am teaching? What new ways of solving or talking about mathematics will I hear? How will I learn what they know and then pose new questions to know how deeply their understandings are? These questions guide my work and motivate me as I notice and wonder in my classroom. Instead of planning to teach content, I plan experiences to help me learn about my students’ mathematical thinking. How will I learn what Maria’s understanding of quadratic functions are? How can I devise a task that will help me learn how Dan decides whether to use elimination or substitution to solve a system of linear equations? These questions lead to a more interesting and engaging lesson for me and my students; it never gets old and I find myself excited to know more about my students and find new ways to uncover and develop their understandings.
As I continue to work as a mathematics educator, my practice will continue to evolve. One of the most motivating aspects of teaching is that you can always get better; there is no such thing as a perfect lesson or a perfect teacher. As I continue to learn from students, I will inevitably continue to grow as a teacher. As I grow, I look forward to seeing how my dialogue shifts once again as I come to be able and come to realize what is possible from and with my students.
Merriam-Webster, s. v. “learn,” accessed August 13, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/learn
Merriam-Webster, s. v. “teach,” accessed August 13, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/teach
Merriam-Webster, s. v. “teacher,” accessed August 13, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/teacher