Down to the Delta

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 15 2011

The Tipping Point

I have had some bad days recently. Really bad ones. I had to have a girl taken out of my room because she was causing such a huge scene yelling about how she hates this school, hates the teachers, doesn’t care if she get’s written up and on and on and on. That afternoon, I started chatting with the vice principal. She told me how she had brought that student into her office to talk to her when she had been taken from my room. All that the student would talk about was how much she loved me, loved my class, thought I was a great teacher, and was doing so much better this year than last year because of me. And this is how she acts in my class? I asked the vice principal. “Yup, if she didn’t like you, she would just sit there, never do her work, and never say anything.”

I need to wrap my mind around this and adjust my style to reflect it.

My other bad days this week really go back to that student and her behavior as well. Wednesday was the day before our chapter 3 test. The bellringer for Wednesday was the same as the bellringer I had given the day before. Write the equation for a line that goes through these two points. The points might have been slightly different, but it was the same idea. The reaction I got to that bellringer was the same reaction I get almost every single day. “I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO DO THIS. WE NEVER LEARNED THIS. I HAVE NEVER SEEN THIS BEFORE IN MY LIFE. YOU HAVEN’T TAUGHT US THIS.” For some reason, I can’t STAND this reaction. I always tell my kids that if you have a question, I am happy to answer it. But just yelling about how we never learned this is both ineffective and frustrating. It was this building frustration from both my students and myself that led to students starting to complain that I would never answer their questions and they don’t know how to do anything and how are they supposed to learn this, which eventually ended up with that one students getting taken out of class, sent to in school suspension for 3 days where she promptly cursed, is now suspended for two days and THEN she will be in ISS for 3 days when she gets back.

Big mess.

So when I actually gave the test on Thursday, I had a girl say to me, “Why do you give us a test when you know we don’t know it and you know we are going to fail?” I had no answer. I DID know they didn’t know it. I DID know they were going to fail (and fail they did…), but I had no choice. The school makes my tests. The school tells me when to give my tests. I struggle with this a lot because it isn’t that I didn’t attempt to teach the students everything they needed to know for the test, but for most of them, the material was way over their head. As I was grading these tests Thursday and Friday, I did a lot of thinking about why my kids were no succeeding in the way I want them to. And I am now at a place that has taken me 9 weeks to get to. And, if you are still with me, I would like to explain. I swear it all goes back to that original student I was writing about.

School for these students is not the same as school was for me.

And math in particular is completely different for them than it was for me. For me, what always made math pretty easy and almost comforting was that at some point in every problem I would at to the point where I thought “I got it from here.” In geometry this would mean setting up a problem and then knowing from there you can solve it. In calculus figuring out what you need to take the derivative of and then just having to go through the motions of doing it. Whatever it was, I just had to get to that tipping point. Most of my students have no tipping point. They have no solid foundation in anything to fall back on. Every single problem is new to them. And every single PART of a problem is new to them. For the most part, it isn’t that they aren’t trying or aren’t listening, it is literally that they think we haven’t learned it or they think it is a different problem.

Imagine how hard math would be if every single problem seemed different.

The idea of “introducing new material” is almost non-existant when every problem every day seems like new material to them. It is never “if I just learn this one new thing then I can solve the problem.” The entire 50 minute period is a struggle and, without that tipping point so critical to my math success, it never lets up.

If I were in their position, I would probably act up too.

But what do I do? What do I do in 50 minutes a day to get my kids to the point where they have a tipping point and can see the similarities from one problem to the next? It took me 9 weeks to diagnose the problem in a way that might keep me from getting so frustrated with my kids and might help me teach them better, and here’s to hoping that it won’t take me the entire next 9 weeks to start coming up with a solution.

Off to get my free iPad!

Also, check out to see my roommate’s blog. It is a lot more uplifting than mine, and will probably bring a big ol’ smile to your face.

2 Responses

  1. Cal

    Back in June, you wrote this:

    “When I think about people being behind in school, I normally think that they are a little slower to pick up concepts then others. Or maybe they are ever a year behind where they should be in math or reading. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine kids who are going to be juniors and seniors in high school not being able to add negative numbers. Never did I imagine that they wouldn’t be able to spell “slope” or recognize that 4/4=1. This stuff is real. And it is scary. And it is unfair to the kids who want to graduate high school and might not. And it is an absolute injustice. And I am angry about it.”

    You were basically blaming the people who somehow didn’t help these people. You couldn’t believe that they could have the deficits if they had had good teachers.

    Starting to realize that it isn’t the teachers? You think that their fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers were just lazy, or do you think that maybe at that lower level, the kids also saw every problem as new, there was no “Oh, I get it now”, no tipping point.

    You’ve talked a lot about how wrong your assumptions were, first as to how far behind they were, now as to how there’s no “aha moment”.

    Remember this when you start assuming that their earlier teachers were just bad, rather than that the kids didn’t have a tipping point in those years, either.

    In other words: it’s not the teacher that causes the test scores.

  2. Ms. Math

    i had mandated tests too. EVERY SINGLE one of my kids failed the district Algebra test. I knew that would be the case at the start of the semester. My MLTD thought I had low expectations. I was right-you actually need to know some things to do well in Algebra and you can’t cram it all in in an semester while learning to teach.

    Luckily(or not) 93% of the district failed so eventually I stopped feeling so bad when the papers wrote about how the whole district sucked and the test authors were like “but we gave them a practice test, why didn’t they teach it?”

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