Surviving your brilliant, brilliant decision to go to #TMC16

So far I’ve been to two Twitter Math Camps. My first was in Jenks, OK in 2014, and my second was in Claremont, CA in 2015. The second year I had my co-worker come with me, and she was almost the ultimate TMC and MTBoS newbie, and it inspired me to write a quick survival guide for future teachers that still have their first Twitter Math Camp in their future. This won’t be the most eloquent #TMCSurvivalGuide but hopefully it will be funny and hopefully you will find it useful.

BEFORE LEAVING FOR TMC

  1. Join Twitter – This may seem obvious since it’s called “Twitter Math Camp” but every year there’s one or two people that get there and say “Oh, I’m not on twitter.”  I’m not saying you should start live-tweeting your day, but it’s a quick way to become familiar with some of the people you’ll meet. And once you’re there it’s a convenient way to connect with people that you might want to follow-up with later.
  2. Become familiar with some of the basics of the community – Matt and John have done a terrific job of assembling most of those here. I think many of us just take for granted things like Visual Patterns and Estimation 180. If you don’t already have even just a slight name recognition with those things some conversations will be confusing at first. Again, you don’t have to be an expert on everything, just vaguely familiar.
  3. Find a social media interface that works for you – For twitter I love Tweetdeck in my browser and Tweetbot on my phone. I use Feedly to follow blogs that I like. There are a hundred more options out there if you start looking and asking for recommendations. But things get overwhelming very quickly if you’re not at least sort of organized.

WHILE AT TMC

  1. Don’t be afraid to jump into conversations – I know this is easier said than done for many of you. I was extremely lucky that at my first TMC I already had two friends from home, so I always had at least one person in the room that I recognized. And even with that I was still nervous walking in to new workshops. But the great thing about our community is that everyone is so friendly and nice, and you very quickly start to have shared experiences. If at all possible, make sure you attend the social gathering on the first night, as it’s a great place to meet people. There will also frequently be open invitations to lunch and dinner. If you are just a little bit brave to say “hey, could I sit here” you will find you are rewarded with great conversations.
  2. FOMO is a serious problem – There is so much awesomeness that takes place in the three days of TMC that it can be overwhelming. Just choosing which workshops to go to is nearly impossible, and then there are all the social gatherings outside of that. I remember at my first TMC, we arranged to meet in the lobby to discuss Geometry courses next year, which then transitioned into a whole other group talking about Interactive Notebooks. All while there were 10 other conversations happening all around us, all about math, 9 of which I wish I had been a part of. It’s normal to feel overloaded, sometimes, which is why you need to…
  3. Make time for yourself – Some people thrive on being 100% social for four days straight. I am not one of those people. I need half an hour after each session, before dinner, to decompress and reflect on my day. There are many others in the same boat. It’s really difficult for me but I have learned to say “That sounds awesome, but I need some alone time right now.” I don’t say it as often as I should, but it’s still a big step for me.

AFTER LEAVING TMC

  1. You don’t have to become besties with everyone you meet – TMC is full of math teachers trying to be the best possible versions of themselves that they can be, and I respect everyone for that more than I can say. But there are definitely people that I just don’t click with for whatever reason. It’s impossible that with 200 people I would want to be best friends with everyone. I feel like this isn’t a thing we always say out loud, but I think it’s important to acknowledge. And maybe this goes into “While at TMC”. But anyway, it’s an important mindset for me to realize that I don’t have to love everyone I meet, so that I can focus my time on the people I do love.
  2. Take some time to reflect and evaluate –  I have a bad habit of being at TMC and thinking I want to do literally every cool idea that I see there. Standards based grading, interactive notebooks, better questioning, Desmos for everything, Mathalicious and Illustrative Mathematics for everything also, redoing curriculum, etc, etc, etc. Then I get home and I think “Well that’s impossible.”  Pick two bigger, or three smaller things that you will focus on for the year and commit to those. Last year we had a #1TMCthing and it was so helpful just to
  3. Take what’s most useful to you – This overlaps with #2 a lot. At my first TMC Lisa said that after two months I should sit down with a glass of wine and thin the herd of blogs and twitter followers a little bit. It was good advice. Twitter can very quickly become overwhelming.
  4. Start planning for next year – Before we leave we find out where the next TMC will be. It immediately goes into my calendar, and I email my entire department saying “Hey, this is awesome, you should go!”
  5. Appreciate how awesome we have it – To the best of my knowledge there is no Twitter Science Camp or Twitter ELA Camp. Whereas we have this amazing experience every summer that helps us all become better. And as we grow I know that things will change in different ways, which is why I want to appreciate everything as it comes.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of things that are important that I will remember the second I get to Augsburg College, but until then, this is a start. I can’t wait to see everyone!

 

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Saying something

One of the reasons I became a math teacher is because I liked how unemotional math is. Sure, I get excited about solving a problem and the beauty in patterns makes me feel something, but we never ask kids how the Pythagorean theorem makes them feel or ask them to interpret the metaphors in a derivation (I can hear the chorus of MTBoS-ers disagreeing right now…). It’s not like analyzing a book in ELA or discussing the impact of historical events in social studies. And so my class isn’t really set-up to be a place where we share our feelings. I’m friendly with the kids, and I will listen to their joys and frustrations, but mainly out of class. For the most part we’re there to solve math problems. This fits my personality. I get excited about things, maybe talk about Pokemon or TV with students, but I wouldn’t say I ever get emotional. Definitely not in front of the kids, but even not in front of friends and family.

Then the massacre at Pulse nightclub happened last Sunday morning. I spent that day looking at news reports and feeling worse and worse. As a gay man who has had to consider whether it was safe to hold my boyfriend’s hand in public, a shooting in a gay club is my worst nightmare. As my twitter feed scrolled by with news updates and reactions from the world, I would retweet what I found most powerful. I would also respond to things that I thought were horrible. I was making my feelings known very publicly on Twitter that I was upset and I was hurting and I was scared.

The whole time, though, I was thinking “What if my kids see this?” They’ve flat-out told me they read my feed, and have quoted tweets back to me in class. What if they read what I was writing? What would they think? I don’t keep the fact that I have a boyfriend from them, but I also don’t bring up my personal life in class very often. My weekend plans don’t factor in when we’re factoring a quadratic (pun unintended).

I will readily admit that, even though I work in a fantastic school with great kids, I still get nervous about being “out.” At my first job, my boss told me on the very first day “Thank god my son isn’t gay, I couldn’t stand it.” At my first school the kids used the f-slur like they were getting paid endorsements from Westboro Baptist Church. On the subway and on the street I’ve been called terrible things. Much of my extended family very publicly thinks gays are going to hell. While my current school is amazing, you never know who is going to react poorly, and the thought of having a moment where someone reacts poorly scares me.

But now all of the fears and things I kept inside were intersecting with my public life. I needed to post those things, to comment, just to help myself deal with it. Yeah, maybe some of my kids would see, but maybe they were struggling too. And maybe these young teens, who are still figuring out who they are, just took a giant step backward because clearly the world isn’t safe.

So not only did I post, I also decided to say something in each of my classes. I didn’t know if I would until my first class was ending, but I had been distracted all period and I needed to say something. It was horribly awkward for me. Like I said, I’m not very good with emotions. I said that I didn’t know where they stood on the spectrums of sexuality and religion and politics, but that what happened was a horrible thing. I told them I was really struggling to deal with it.  I said every time they used a slur, or even heard a slur used and didn’t say anything, they were contributing to a culture where Bad Shit like this can happen. I got choked up, which made me even more awkward. It also happened to be the last class of the year so I had to end my speech with something positive about how it had been a pleasure to teach them. The whole thing was not in my wheelhouse.

But the kids were silent and attentive. And several of them thanked me for saying something after the fact. Apparently I was the only one. One student sent me an email that night that made me cry because of how touching it was. And maybe it helped. Or maybe I’m just the emotional gay teacher now. I don’t know. I guess I’m writing this to sort of process it all. One of the harder things about being a teacher is that teaching content is actually only a small part of what we do. We have to model for the students how they should act in different situations. And that is a lot of responsibility. If I worked at a desk job I would be subdued but I would struggle privately. But I kept thinking that these kids needed to know that what happened WAS horrible. That they needed to know they didn’t have to be OK. Maybe they were getting an opposite message at home. Or maybe I needed to just tell myself that it was OK to not be OK. I don’t know. Ugh, feelings.

I guess the point is I’m glad that I said something. Maybe I lost some of the kids who think gays are gross. Maybe I won some kids who appreciated me being more human. Probably most of the kids will forget I said anything. But at this point I’m realizing the important thing is that I won’t forget, and when I wonder at the senselessness of the last week I can at least say that maybe there was one kid in my class who is terrified and by saying something I made them feel better.

I was going for self-assuring but worry this comes off as self-congratulatory. I don’t think I did anything special, I just needed to process, and I tend to process publicly. Apologies if this was melodramatic. I am gay, after all. 🙂

A message to pre-service teachers

I’m finishing my third year of teaching at age 33.  It’s a long, kinda involved story about how I got to where I am, but long story short I changed careers and decided I wanted to be a math teacher. So I packed everything up and moved to New York because I wanted to help inner-city kids do math good (and do other things good too).  As I was winding down my grad program and looking for jobs, I heard about this new school opening the following year with a focus on preparing kids for careers in addition/as an alternative to college. I’m totally on board with the idea that college isn’t the right fit for everyone right away, so I agreed to come on as the founding math teacher.

Yup. My first year teaching I was the only math teacher at a first year school with a first year principal who had as much teaching experience as I do today, teaching a population in which a third of the students had some sort of special education services.

In an effort to be professional I won’t go into details here, but long story short it was a terrible mess. I never slept. I drank too much. I developed a bald spot in my beard. At the end of the year we had 100% turnover of the teaching staff.

More than once during that year I thought “Oh my god I’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.” Obviously my choice of position didn’t work out, but more than that I thought I was terrible at teaching. And it was devastating because this was something that I felt really passionate about, and more importantly something I had considered myself good at up until that point. Why did I feel like I was getting worse every day? How was I failing so miserably?

But I couldn’t quit. I got my masters as part of MfA, and the fellowship had a four year teaching requirement or else I’d have to repay my degree. And a part of me knew, despite the disaster that was my first year, that I still wanted to teach. So I looked for other jobs.

In a tremendous stroke of luck, one of my good friends at my first school knew of someone at my current school who could pass on my resume. And my current school is awesome. And I got the job. And things are better. Not perfect (and the nature of life is that things will never be perfect), but I look forward to work most days and my co-workers are great and our kids are amazing. My beard even grew back in.

This is a very long, very ineloquent way of telling pre-service teachers the following:

Be Careful

New York City is kind of a special case because a few years ago it was decided that small schools and school choice were the best model, so instead of large community schools we have a TON of smaller schools, most with some sort of special mission statement. So we have a lot more choice about where we apply to work than in other places. But that said, be aware of the place you are working. Don’t repeat my mistake of starting at a brand new school your first year. No matter how much you believe in their mission, there are too many other things to balance just learning to do this job, and trying to also create a school culture and policies is exhausting. Make sure you trust your principal. Research the school. Be wary of charters that churn-and-burn their teaching staff.

Be Resilient

Later this summer there will be a ton of “Letter to a First Year Teacher” blog posts from veteran teachers floating about the interwebs. Read those, and realize that the first year sucks for everyone. But also know that there are levels of suck. If you do find yourself in a bad situation, know that it won’t last forever. Every day there’s another post in some major news outlet about the teacher shortage. You will find another job. And until you do, do your best and remind yourself that you’re doing your best. Nothing lasts forever.

Find things you love, and focus on them

This is intentionally vague, but it could be any number of things. I loved the kids at my first school and tried to focus on the good things they did for me. I loved my coworkers so I went to happy hour every Friday.  I loved cooking so I would spend my Sundays cooking for my roommates. Without those things I honestly don’t know how I would have survived. You need to take care of yourself.

Don’t be afraid to admit defeat

I’m a perfectionist, but one thing I learned that year was to say “This is as good as I can make it right now” and then stop. There will always be things that can be improved, but when your principal keeps telling you to “Figure it out” and then not giving you any advice that’s actually useful, realize that it’s on them and not on you.

Our job is hard. Really hard. Hard in ways that are impossible to describe to other people who focus on the two months we have “off.” But as I said before, and as I say to my students, there are different levels of hard. And maybe this job isn’t the right fit for some of you. Maybe you go to a different school and are still unhappy. That’s obviously ok, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for saying “I tried it out and realized it’s not for me.”

But it makes me so sad to think that there are a number of amazing teachers out there who, for one reason or another, got into a shitty situation and it turned them off from a profession that they could have added so much to. If teaching is something you really feel passionate about, find places and people that will reward that passion.  You can, and will, do so many great things. Just keep looking for a place that will let you.