After my first year of Common Core implementation and Smarter Balanced assessments last year, I began to reflect on the tremendous amount of change in our math education system and the stresses associated with those changes.
Trying to come up with an analogy, I realized that the most appropriate is a marathon. Changes in standards and shifts in what successful math instruction looks like has required perseverance, time, and patience. Added to these changes is the fact that many cash-strapped schools are trying to find the resources for instructional specialists. The result is a situation where teachers are sometimes making lonely journeys with a shaken sense of confidence and direction.
As I prepare for the coming year, it struck me: What would I need to do to run the school-year marathon as a math teacher successfully?
After researching what it takes to train for a successful marathon run, I've applied those steps to prepare for my upcoming "race."
1. Build a base
Before you start training to run the marathon, a base should already be built.
Spending time doing math is imperative. We often forget what being a student feels like. Whether in your professional learning community (PLC) or alone, throw out the answer keys and complete a few tasks, trying to imagine a student's mindset. Recall how vulnerable some students feel as they struggle to make sense of math. Give your PLC the goal of trying to solve a task each trimester or quarter (essentially teachers acting as students) and share your thinking. This "base" knowledge of different mathematical approaches, misconceptions, and student mindset, will help extend your thinking about your practice.
2. Pick a running plan
Find a plan that fits your lifestyle and your fitness level.
Identify year-long goals and set a timeline for implementation. I would focus on only one or two goals. Picking too many can result in becoming overwhelmed and cause a loss of confidence and stamina. Goals might include implementing a few performance tasks and analyzing student work, or requesting release time to watch other teachers implement math. Developing a plan will give you a clear focus.
3. Think quality over quantity
Running lots of miles each week is one way to prepare for a marathon, but lots of miles can increase our chance of injury.
Identify high leverage tasks for students. Choose the minimal number of questions that will tell you the most information. Often one question can help to assess multiple standards. In addition, identify the components of high quality mathematical instruction through which all new ideas are filtered. Review what current tasks, assessments, and instructional practices meet and do not meet that vision. When you decide to try something new, identify what you are letting go of. Keeping a balanced workload will help you avoid becoming overwhelmed.
4. Cross train
Doing non-running but still-aerobic cross training, as well as light resistance training on your off running days, is a great way to optimize your running fitness.
Common Core asks students to justify, explain, and make connections. These are all skills highlighted in the English Language Arts (ELA) Common Core standards as well. Identify a time when you can connect with your ELA peers so you're clear on the expectations for students to justify/explain in ELA. Being consistent with students across subject areas will help them improve their ability to defend their conclusions in all classes.
5. Find a training group
Whether you're paying for a coach who is leading a group training program or you just round up your running buddies, training in a group can make all the difference in the world in how successful you are.
Identify people or groups who can support your professional learning. Perhaps your district can provide resources to help you develop your mathematical thinking and teaching skills. If not, you may need to advocate for additional support. For example, neither my district nor building has an instructional coach. However, we brought in Teachers Development Group to help guide us on the use of protocols to enhance justification and mathematical reasoning. A positive, knowledgeable training group will ensure your growth, which will keep you internally motivated. The "training group" must not be evaluative, but rather supportive and informative.
6. Research the race
Scope out at which mile markers water and/or aid stations will be provided.
Evaluating and researching typically challenging standards will help you approach them with an organized plan. Anticipating the most common misconceptions will encourage enhanced questioning and effective use of hands-on materials to help students make sense of mathematical ideas. Also as part of your plan for the year, foster a positive environment with a PLC. Work should be enjoyable. If work begins to get too stressful, approach leadership about a way to celebrate staff or any other idea that's fun and builds positive relationships. Finally, understand yourself as a learner. Be transparent with your PLC when you're beginning to lag in energy. Plan for mental breaks during the year.
Rest is just as important as a run workout. Your body needs time to rebuild and repair.
Take the summer to rejuvenate and reflect. As an educator you are a giver. Summer needs to provide you the mental space to begin again. For some people that means reading about new ideas to put into next year's plan. Others will engage in math and increase their own mathematical competencies. Others will travel, bathe in the sun, or play with their kids. Whatever helps your heart and soul repair is what you need to do.
Take time to plan for next year. Planning ahead can make the "marathon" of a school year a successful and enjoyable experience.