When I began teaching, reading and language arts were my sweet spots. Teaching math was something I had to do, and I tried to do it well, but I wasn't a fan. My own experiences learning math as a student had not been stellar, which spilled over into my teaching. Fortunately for me, but especially for my students, I began attending math professional learning sessions. In all honesty, it wasn't the topic that attracted me, but rather the hours I needed to keep my teaching credentials up to date.
Those sessions turned out to be amazing, opening my eyes to the beauty and wonder of mathematics. More importantly, they helped to unlock my understanding of mathematics. For the first time, I began to experience and see math as making sense, to understand the why behind all those things I had tried so hard to memorize. The sun had come out, and I wanted to make sure my students could also see the light.
As I returned to my classroom, the reality of the work of teaching – the daily must-dos–slowly moved my new-found love of math to the rearview mirror. However, my professional learning experiences had been so profound that I was determined not to let my goals for math teaching and learning fall by the wayside. I made a list of the things I needed to make my goal a reality.
- I knew I needed to continue working on and deepening my understanding of math.
- I also needed to find content that addressed my students' learning goals in ways that developed both conceptual understanding and skills.
- I needed to think more deeply and act on ways to better know my students and how they thought mathematically.
I began scouring shelves, both concrete and virtual, in search of professional books on the topic of teaching math. My shelves began to expand with additions like About Teaching Mathematics by Marilyn Burns, Children's Mathematics by Thomas P. Carpentar, et al, and Young Mathematicians at Work by Catherine Twomey Fosnot and Marteen Dolk. Some books I chose focused on math content and pedagogy, and some were filled with tasks and games. I was grateful for both.
I also continued to seek out and advocate for professional learning opportunities that I knew would be interactive, allowing me to engage with mathematics and consider how my learning mattered to my teaching and my students' learning. The sessions made it clear to me how important it was to give my students time to explain their thinking and to listen carefully to what they were saying. When I did so, I was often amazed by what they were saying, and sometimes perplexed. I learned from listening to them.
As I continued my learning journey, I realized something else that belonged, then and now, on my list of needs – colleagues. Whether reading a book, working on math to deepen my content knowledge, listening to students, or planning instruction, I am always more successful at growing my practice when working with others. My colleagues have sometimes been coaches, sometimes the teachers in my building, and sometimes educators from across the country. Whatever the scenario, it is always true that we are much better together than I could ever be on my own.
Looking back, I recognize how that first step of opting to attend professional learning focused on math changed my teaching career. I feel fortunate to have had learning experiences that have enriched my teaching and the lives of my students.
I look forward to continuing my learning journey, always eager to make new connections and gain new insights.
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Patty Clark is the Director of Math@Heinemann, responsible for planning and developing professional learning products and services in support of math educators. Her years of teaching experience in K-5 classrooms contribute to her passion for working together with other educators to grow successful practices for math teaching and learning.