Thursday, January 19, 2012

Getting Started

I've been following the f(t), Continuous Everywhere and Differentiable Nowhere, dy/dan, and Think Thank Thunk blogs for the last year or so and I've been blown away by how wonderful it is to read about teachers who are struggling with the same frustrations, joys and dilemmas as I, (me?  Hey, I'm a math teacher after all.)

I'm in a bit of a unique situation and stumbling into these blogs has returned my sanity and revitalized my love of teaching.  You see, I am all alone.  Totally and completely isolated from professionals in mathematics and I thought I would just have to suck it up and learn as much as I could all by myself.  I was hired at a tiny (88 student) rural college prep charter school and I am the only math teacher.  The reason my school was started in the middle of nowhere, Oregon is because the local college in the area had professors who had children who wanted to go to college.  There were also lawyers, doctors, waitresses, construction workers and basically, a lot of concerned parents who wanted their children to have rigorous programs so that their children had a fighting chance of getting into good universities and colleges.  The public schools in the area are routinely below the state average on state tests and can be less than wholesome environments for determined students (meth has taken over our area.)

The result: a charter school was created here in the early 1990s (originally it was a magnet and switched to charter 7 years ago.)  Our school is as rigorous and demanding as a private school, yet we make do on 85% of the funding a normal public school would get.  This means that with 88 students we have a total of 4 full time teachers.  I teach all levels of math from 7th-12th grades including pre-algebra, algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2, pre-calculus and calculus.  I also, (because we only have 4 teachers) have to teach the science classes which I'm totally hopeless at.  By the way, I also teach the art elective.  This is 9 preps.  Last year I had 14 preps.  The year before I had 15 preps.

If you're wondering how we ended up with 15 or so different levels of math, the reason is that the teacher before me was hired for her science teaching abilities (biology) not for math.  The students studied by themselves straight out of textbooks without anyone ever checking their work.  I walked in on my first day to high school math students who were from all different levels from pre-algebra through 2nd year calc clumped into the same two class periods (6 different levels in the same period).  In addition, those who were supposed to be in say, algebra 2 had been studying independently of each other and were all in different places of the curriculum.  Not to mention the fact that few of them had really learned much of the content they had "gotten through".

The last two and a half years I've been working in isolation, slowing trying to fill in holes, trying to pull kids into the same level with each other, and trying to keep up with so many different preps.  I had no other math teachers to talk to, no curriculum to go off of, and no time to think about looking for advice because I was barely keeping my head above water.  Now two an a half years in I've developed a full 7 year long math curriculum, I can keep up with the planning and grading, and my students are performing well above average on state tests (because of their determination.  I don't want to take credit because all I did was organize the curriculum.  I spent most of my time flopping around trying to feel my way blindly.  My kids are awesome.)

Yet despite things going pretty well, this year I've found it much harder to stay motivated.  Maybe because, now that I no longer have the panic and desperation of my first two years of teaching, I've been asking myself if I'm actually good at it.  Sometimes I think I'm doing pretty well, other days I spend all evening and sometimes all night obsessing over things I feel could have gone so much better but I don't know what else I could have done.  I didn't have time for this kind of self reflection before and now I realize that I am not capable of evaluating my own abilities as a teacher.  I need other people.  I need to vent, and I need criticism and advice.  I need a place where people know what I'm talking about and where I can get out what I need to say about teaching so that my husband and friends and family can talk to me about something else.  I also need to stay sane.  And have a life outside of school (90+ hour work weeks, but reading around other blogs makes me feel better because all of you seem to know what that's like.)  So even if no one reads this, at least some of these goals may be accomplished.

We will see.


  1. Wow! I'm so impressed that you've survived this crazy schedule for multiple years. You have a serious advantage in terms of continuity and vertical alignment, but I would be completely overwhelmed. I look forward to hearing more of what you're doing, especially in the pre-algebra through geometry courses (that's where I'm teaching this year).

  2. Yes, it has been crazy. I am really concerned that this trial by fire as an introduction to teaching has caused me to be a less thoughtful and more "just get it done" type of teacher because I really have just been trying to survive. I really want to focus more on quality and I feel a lot of the stuff I pump out to my kids is sub par. But I'm really excited to have a community to explore lesson planning with as I start to have more time to work on quality. Thanks for replying!