Some Thoughts On Success

I am Smart…always have been.  I learn things quickly, arrive with everything I need for the day and I can memorize something as fast as the teacher can write it on the board (or, at least, I could, before teaching, single-parenting, and stress turned my brain into Jello).  Even so, I can still be Smart now because I have well developed executive functioning skills, a strong personality and a well developed vocabulary that I use to convince others of my Smartness when necessary.  For such a Smart person, though, I’ve spent a large percentage of my life feeling really, really Stupid.

Because, you see, the kind of Smart I am only serves me in a small percentage of my life.  I also have anxiety, which makes me socially awkward, prone to panic and depression and a professional procrastinator.  I’m also Gifted, which, in my case, is shorthand for having a brain that never shuts up, while refusing to organize my thoughts in a way that make sense to anyone but me, without a painful amount of effort.  The combination of anxiety and Giftedness leads to a paralysis that is topped only by my ability to be distracted by any movement or sound and my ability to overreact to just about anything.

By now, you can either relate to this dichotomy, or are considering switching to a new blog because, “What the heck does any of this have to do with teaching Math, anyway?”  Well, here it is:  My successes and failures in school were not simply about how Smart I was (if you even believe in that kind of thing).  They were about the complexity of who I am as a person and about the people that have been part of my life along the way.  The same is true for each of our students, and we are one of the people along their way.  As teachers, whether we want the responsibility or not, we influence reality for every student we teach.  The reality that we create in our classrooms influences the thoughts that students have about themselves and about their learning, as well as the paths they take into their world.  In other words WE are the definition of success for students, at least while they are in our classroom.

YIKES! Right? I know. It’s a lot.  It’s so much of a lot that it leads to huge attrition and burnout in our profession.  We lose creative, caring and brilliant educators every year to the exhaustion, guilt and trauma that pervades our lives.  Not just our work lives.  Our home lives. Our social lives.  Our days and nights.  And, if so many jump ship for safer shores, what are we left with?  The tired, jaded martyrs that seem to populate the teaching profession in so many countries around the world.  And, sometimes, I feel myself becoming one of them.

So, what is a teacher to do in the face of total burnout?  Give up?  That’s not me.  Slack off?  That only makes me feel worse.  Just do everything the easiest way possible, without too much thought or reinvention?  I’m not wired that way.  So, I started exploring the question: What does success look like to me?  Once I could answer that question, I could start to see where my successes were, where the success were within my classroom community and where success was achieved for each of my learners.  Once I could begin to answer the question of what I saw success to be, I could begin to focus on ways to create those successes.  The acknowledgement and illumination of success is essential for teachers because, without those moments of success, there is no Belief.  It is Belief that drives us.  Belief in our capability to learn, to overcome, to move forward.  If we can help students see their own successes, no matter how small they may appear on the whole scale(of curriculum or humanity), we can help them build up their own Belief in themselves as a lifelong learner.

For me, being able to see success was about acknowledging myself as a whole person: a messy tangle of gifts and challenges.  It is a process of sorting out what I consider to be my gifts, rather than constantly trying to display those that I had allowed others to place upon me throughout my life.  The same goes for challenges.  It is about embracing my own challenges.  Allowing them to exist, without shame or suppression or overcompensation. I’m still working on it.  It’s very hard, but it is allowing me to see why the challenges exist, how I might overcome them or even if they need overcoming.  I’m learning to say, “I haven’t worked on my map-reading skills enough.”  Rather than, “I suck at maps and I have no sense of direction.”  It’s made me comfortable asking my class to keep an eye on my spelling, as I write on the board, because, “I don’t have my word-processor, dictionary or cell phone right now.”

I believe these are really important messages that we, as teachers, can give our students because it lets them know that, not only do we have many of the same challenges as they do, but that there are toolkits that they can develop for overcoming those challenges that don’t make them less Smart or capable or Less in any way, really.  As teachers, we are only human, after all.  We are not (always) the computation-capable, spell every word correctly the first time, organizational prodigies that (most) of society seems to assume we are.  “Hey, Jess.  You’re the Math person.  You can add these 25 things and calculate 15% off in your head, while reciting your count by 5s backwards from 1000, right?” (Insert sigh and eye role here).  I actually can’t because I came to Math through YEARS of hard work at trying to be better at something I feared and wanted to teach better.  Being trotted out like a circus pony in front of people, whose mental math is likely (75.3% likely) better than mine, every time numbers appear, triggers my anxiety to the point where I can’t add, spell or remember my own phone number, so STOP IT! never claimed to be good at computation.  That’s your thing.

What I can do is relate pretty well to people who think Math is a terrifying black hole of nonsense, involving numbers to be manipulated (computation) and (maybe), over time, help them see that that is only a part (a very small part, usually overcome by the use of a simple calculator or lots of practice to develop your number flexibility).  What I can do, is help people realize that Math is not an elitist part of our brain that we have or don’t have, but that is is like dancing, or drawing or learning to walk.  We all have to start somewhere and it’s rare to start from the same place, at the same time, as someone else.  It’s only when we allow our success to be measured by the progress of others that we lose sight of our own progress.

So, I guess that is where I am in this journey.  The Human nature of success.  For me, as an educator, it is about bringing my whole self to the classroom: My Gifts, my Passions, my Flaws, my Failures.  Each can serve me in my role, but only if they are truly my own.  I’m still working on “Balance”.  It’s not really one of my gifts, and I’m not yet convinced it exists, but I work every day on maintaining perspective, at moderating my emotional reactions and at being ok with not being perfect.  Most importantly, I work at recognizing the successes that happen each day, for myself and for each of my learners, so that I can feel successful and also help them to see their successes:

  1. My 7yo son, who a year ago would state, “I don’t want to talk about that.  It’s Math.” Now, bouncing up and down on the couch, trying desperately not to interrupt (a success unto itself) his sister’s turn to explain Which One Doesn’t Belong.  Or stealing my computer to figure our how the Desmos activity on pool perimeters works. Or asking me, “Can you ask me something Math?”
  2. My kindergarten daughter happily grouping, counting adding and subtracting penguins on our trip to the aquarium because that is the obvious thing to do when confronted with a conveniently supplied bunch of penguins.
  3. A student with a learning disability producing beautiful patterns and transformations because her brain sees the spatial things that my brain has to work so hard to capture.  The same student putting down her doodling during Math lessons to contribute her perspective in Number Talks, until one day coming up to the board to explain her ideas herself.
  4. A grade 6 girl with a file that would bring you to tears and severe social anxiety agreeing to share a mistake she made in her mathematical modelling and how she discovered and fixed it without any help from me.
  5. Listening to my previously struggling students smash their final interviews on strategies for finding percents because they learned to believe in their power to think and reason, and in doing so, discovered strategies that made the Math make sense to them.
  6. Watching a Smart student take a deep breath and start again, rather than collapsing into tears for not being perfect the first time.
  7. Having a student with an intellectual disability ask me a question about his work, stop fighting with his peers, smile and give me his understanding of what we are working on because he is finally, fully, part of the learning community in class.
  8. Chasing groups of students onto the playground at recess because Math has to stop sometime and I have to go to the bathroom!
  9. Writing report card comments full of what the student CAN DO, regardless of the standardized summative proficiency rating beside the subject label.  Knowing that they have the confidence upon which to build towards further success.
  10. Having parents tell me, “This is the first time he has liked coming to school.  Thank you for a successful year.”

This is my vision of success.  What is yours?

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