Starting Out: First Steps Toward Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had

I was honored that Middleweb asked me to write a blogpost specifically for new math teachers. Reposting here:

When I was in graduate school preparing to become an elementary-school teacher, my math methods professor, Elham Kazemi, told me it takes five years to become a skillful math teacher. I remember thinking, “Oh no! What about all the kids I’ll have between now and then? Am I going to ruin them?”

Well, the good news is they survived. I think I even did them some good. Sure, teaching mathematics is incredibly complex and I’m a lot better at it now than I was then. I plan to spend my whole career working to become a better math teacher, and I know I’ll never get bored because there is so much new learning to do. Even so, newer teachers have a ton to offer students. I feel proud of and excited by everyone who chooses to become a teacher, and your upcoming students are lucky to have you.

It’s reasonable to set some goals for your development as a math teacher. Be patient and forgiving with yourself while working to get better. Over the years, you’ll build relationships with your students, you’ll figure out how to build a strong classroom community, you’ll grow your content knowledge, you’ll learn how to facilitate conversations about mathematics, you’ll get more discerning about choosing tasks and curriculum for good pedagogical reasons, you’ll become more efficient and focused about gathering and using formative assessment, you’ll anticipate what students might say and do with more accuracy, and you’ll find your teaching style. It will come. But where to start?

In my coaching and my work with preservice teachers, I’ve learned that my square one is always the same: I want teachers to become addicted to listening to students’ mathematical ideas. It might sound like simple advice, but it’s not. Everything else follows. Once we become fascinated by our students’ creativity and ingenuity, we become more motivated to teach math. We enjoy it more, and so do our students. Soon enough, we dive more deeply into the mathematical content so we can understand why our students’ invented methods work. Before long, we recognize patterns in the way students’ ideas progress, and we crave professional learning about the development of mathematical ideas. We start reading, signing up for workshops, going to conferences, joining Twitter, blogging, seeking out colleagues who are as excited as we are to hear the amazing thing a student said or asked in mathematics today. Our curiosity drives us to read the research and find a professional learning community. We aspire to understand, to talk less and listen more, to ask better questions, to make more thoughtful instructional decisions, to support our young mathematicians. We reflect, and learn, and grow.

On the first day of math methods, Elham told us that she was the lucky one who would introduce us to the fascinating world of young children and mathematics. She taught our cohort to listen to children’s mathematical thinking, and be amazed. Pretty much every positive development I’ve made in my math teaching since has followed from close listening. When I feel unsure of what to do, I think, “Don’t just do something; stand there. Listen.”

The rest will come, in due time.

Have a wonderful school year, and let me extend my most heartfelt welcome to this noble profession.


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2 thoughts on “Starting Out: First Steps Toward Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had

  1. Wow! I wish I had heard this in my first year as a math teacher. Student math thinking is such a great addiction for teachers to foster the right amount of facilitating and classroom leadership. I will be sharing this post with the new math teachers I encounter and coach this and the coming years. Thank you very much for sharing.

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