“What if students aren’t ready?”


We’ve all seen this before on Facebook and laughed internally. But one practice in our classrooms proves we aren’t so far beyond this as we’d like to think. It’s happened to all of us – You have a great idea for an engaging and authentic problem about similarity! Or about writing equations! Or…[fill in the blank]!

There’s just one problem. You know that your students have arrived in your classroom without all of the prior knowledge hoped for at their current grade level. A student gives you a blank look when you ask about scale factor or about how to solve a proportion. Or a student can’t articulate what a variable represents. Or…[fill in the blank]. Sound familiar? We’re left lamenting, “What if my students aren’t ready?.”

My admission:

We have all experienced this in some form or another. It is daunting to present students with a problem at grade level when you know that for many (or even most) students you can’t draw on the appropriate prior knowledge. Our natural instinct is to pause, review what should be prior knowledge, and then re-engage in the work at grade level.

My ask:

I ask that you present your great problem ideas to all of your students and allow them to identify and ask for the learning they need. Our most successful math teachers in the New Tech Network fight the natural instinct to front-load needed skills, and instead present the problem at grade level to all students first. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I ask you also try to fight your natural urge as well.

The “why”:

Students who arrive lacking basic skills do not show up this way because they have never been taught those skills. Quite the contrary, they likely have been formally taught those skills at least twice and perhaps had some remediation on top of that. Even with potentially three passes at these skills, they didn’t ‘stick’. They didn’t make enough sense to students for them to be able to call upon that knowledge when necessary in your course. And in all reality, a fourth pass at practicing that skill in the same way likely won’t be successful either. You must strategically change the way you teach that skill, and provide context for why that skill matters, to change a student’s understanding of that skill. Change the teaching/learning method to change the learning/understanding result.

Students who arrive in your classroom also are likely lacking a mathematical mindset, or even the mindset that they can be successful in a math class. The importance of a student’s mindset about his/her ability to learn a skill overwhelmingly outweighs current knowledge of the actual skill itself. If a student doesn’t believe she can learn, you’re sunk before you’ve even begun. But a student who is willing to engage in the great problem you want to do, and who believes it is worthwhile and is smart to ask questions? Yes, foster that! If you present your students with challenging problems, and with the scaffolding to support them, you are sending the not-so-subtle message that you believe your kids are ready for real mathematics. Please let your students see the real and beautiful and connected math we so appreciate. If you let your students engage, coach them how to engage, and support them as they struggle, the results might be surprising to you. And they’ll certainly be rewarding.


When sports and education collide…

How would you define culture? Had you asked me this some time ago, I likely would’ve responded with something somewhat generic, or maybe I would have given some examples. At best, I would have said “trust, respect, and responsibility”, for those NTNers out there. That’s what I would’ve said. But then this happened…

Let me back up to say that I have a few passions in my life, two of which include sports (March Madness is a real illness for me and fall weekends are football-centric) and, of course, progressing and improving (math) education. And on occasion, these two passions collide in an awesome way.

As I often do, I spent a night in a hotel room recently prepping for a site visit the following day. With ESPN on in the background, I typed away on my laptop. Longtime SportsCenter host Steven van Pelt caught my attention with a story about this year’s 3rd NBA draft pick who got into some legal trouble. This young man almost immediately responded with a tweet of atonement.

While I can almost recite the commentary about young, entitled athletes that I expected to follow, that’s not where this sports journalist was headed. Instead, he asked viewers who else might be responsible for this behavior. And he brought up this player’s NBA team and (here it is!) the team culture that might subtly or even overtly condone negative behavior.

What’s more, the definition of culture used in this story was the following:

Culture (n): conditions suitable for growth

What if this definition was our guiding question framing culture conversations in education?

As you think about the various cultures at play at your school or in your classroom, what conditions are suitable for your growth or your students’ growth? And what conditions aren’t suitable for growth? We hope that students enter our classrooms each day with the intention to be fully dedicated to their peers and to learning. But we know intentions are often best laid, and then not followed. So how do we bolster the conditions for growth so as to support our students to achieve their intentions, and for us to learn and grow with colleagues?

I can’t say I have an answer to those questions. But as one of my passions collides with another, I’ve at least found my new answer to the question, “How would you define culture?”

Redefining “Impact”

“I dearly miss all of my kiddos, but I’m excited about the prospect of having a greater impact on education.” This has been my mantra as I explain my transition from math teacher to school development coach. In my 4 years at Cleveland High School, I was incredibly fortunate to have excellent professional development (departmental coaching as well as New Tech Network events and opportunities) and administrative support (the backing and encouragement to be bold, risky within reason, and occasionally experimental). But the potential to impact students outside of my classroom and teachers outside of my school lurked and whispered and outright yelled at me. With the lure to make a different and bigger impact, I whole-heartedly jumped with both feet into the world of coaching.


Here’s perhaps where I didn’t fully think things through. What does this impact look like in coaching? How is this defined? In the classroom, I could feel impact. At the end of the year, I looked back on student work from the beginning of the year, I listened to the incredible change in tone of the group conversations in even November versus September, or, best yet, I had former Geometry students return as students in my PreCalculus class. In this last case, I not only got to see again the impact my classroom had, but also the impact of our departmental work (how students had grown during the in-between year) and in other content areas as well (how students had touches of improvement from each teacher). The school’s impact on the students was palpable. But the question remains: Where is this in coaching? What’s the comparable hit-me-in-the-face impact in coaching? I know the moments exist; I just don’t know what they look like.


I do have one more data point to enter on the topic in the hopes of approaching an answer: The first event I facilitated as a coach was to welcome a new school to the network and investigate the school’s purpose and ideal graduate. When the staff dug in to defining their ideal graduate (imagine post-its flying, large chart paper filling, debates over word choice heating), I realized I was jealous – jealous to not be in the thick of it and making decisions that I knew would directly impact future decisions and, more importantly, the students that walked through my hallways. I’m aware that our facilitation allowed this conversation to occur and (at least in our eyes) end productively and so, by some weird version of the transitive property, I have a hand in the school and student impact they will enact this fall. But it’s that distance between me and this impact that feels so drastically different. And the fact that I may never get to see or feel that impact with my own eyes and heart.


So how do I reconcile this changing definition of “impact” and how it will be captured and captioned moving forward in my career? Holding onto patience with my own learning curve that I always asked of my students and onto teacher leader experiences as a beginning toolkit, I hope to continue to add data points to help me reason my way to a definition that is real, rich, and fulfilling. To summarize, perhaps I should edit an earlier sentence from this post about where impactful coaching moments reside:


I know the moments exist; I just don’t know what they look like…yet!