Skillful means for math students and showing up for teacher work

Dear Reader, it is late August! School is beginning soon! For me, that means it’s time to reflect on my goals while I still have the bandwidth to do so.

I ended the last school year feeling overwhelmed with the demands of teaching. Between the changes that I had initiated in my classrooms (trying out different teaching styles, grading systems, and digital platforms), the wide variety of students I was teaching (8th through 11th graders, pre-algebra to pre-calculus), the needs of my students and their families, and the contradictions inherent in teaching progressively in a non-progressive world, it was easy for me to lose sight of the meaning and purpose of my work.

Over the summer, I had a few chances to step back and think. This allowed me to reaffirm my commitment to the work of education by outlining what I want for my students, and how I intend to help them get them there. I made two lists: the first, a set of developmental goals that I have for all of my students; and the second, a set of learning habits specifically geared to their growth as math students, that would help them approach the goals. Here I’ll talk a little about both, in the order I developed them.

Mathematical Habits, or: Skillful Means for Math Students

I developed these early in the summer, at a conference for math teachers at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. My workshop leader, Johnothon Sauer, asked our group to answer the question:

What do you want the kids to focus on in your course and your classroom?

The first thing I wrote was the title for my answer to that question: “Skillful Means,” which I had written about just a few weeks before the conference. Skillful means are a set of “practices and habits by which we wake up to what’s real.” I saw his question as an opportunity to describe the development that’s really going on in my classroom (if everything goes as planned), and how I could focus my energy and my students’ energy on that development.

Here’s the list of habitsI want my students to focus on in my math class:

  1. creativity: seeing freshly, using all of their resources (math)
  2. process: conjecture and evidence and revision (math)
  3. communication: speaking and listening and questioning (us)
  4. collaboration/citizenship: mutual support and mutual regard (us)
  5. practice: consistence and persistence in their work and preparation (you)
  6. reflection: meta-cognition and self-knowledge or meaning-making (you)

This is a list of six habits that I want my math students to focus on and cultivate, a tool box of qualities that allowed students to fully engage in their work in math — in short, skillful means to realizing their mature understanding of math.

After I rattled these off, I labeled each with one of the three parenthetical notes (math, us, you). Math focused on a fundamentally mathematical practice (creative problem solving and the process of developing one’s own ideas in math), us focused on one’s relationship with a community of math-workers (communication and collaboration/citizenship), and you focused on the students themselves (the individual practice of working on math on one’s own, and the reflection on what one has done and how one has changed in that work).

I imagined these being most useful as framing my feedback to the students. While I would offer graded feedback for the understanding they could show me of the various math skills and content we were spending all of our time discussing in class, these six habits would be how I talked to students about the quality of their work. I would write their comments based on these habits, and talk to their advisers and parents in these terms. With a consistent structure, I can communicate to them what I think is important about doing math, with the hopes that it will change how they think about math and what they do to study it.

Thus the Habits — skillful means. But as it turns out I needed something more, and it was going to follow me around until I could articulate it.

Goals for All Students, or: Showing Up for Work with Young People

So I was on a silent retreat, meditating for about six hours a day, and running a lot of stories over and over in my head about how to do what I want with my life.

Ever since I decided to go to seminary almost seven years ago, I have known that my life was going to take a different path than I had imagined, but it’s taken a long time for that to really take shape. When I finished seminary three years ago, I didn’t have a clear picture of the kind of work that would hold my desire to discuss and pursue meaning and development and being — which I’ve taken to calling soul-work. I ended up returning to the math classroom, but it was financial need (read: student debt) as much as authentic interest that brought me there. I’m happy where I am, but I know that there’s a broader project that I’ve only just begun to explore.

And when you’re meditating for six hours a day, you’ve find yourself with a lot of time to think about what you could be doing or should have done. Thankfully, you also have a lot of time to practice, dropping your awareness down below the thought, and below the attached feelings of doubt, or anxiety, or fear, or regret that seem to arise with the thought, and staying with the experience in your body, right at that moment, not trying to drive off the thought but also not letting it drive you off. Just staying with it and sitting with it, not separating from it or giving in to it.

I had about a day’s worth of meditation wracked with some kind of anxiety in the category of how-can-I-do-what-I-really-want, and I kept up the practice, met with a teacher to talk about it, and kept on sitting, until that moment at 6:35 in the morning, with the rising sun tapping me on the shoulder, when I felt a shift within me that broke that whole story I was telling myself wide open. Rather than the same old narrative of how I can I get to something that’s not yet here, I beheld the question:

Where is the soul-work in your role right now, as middle and high school math teacher?

The answer, dear reader, will not surprise you in the slightest, but it struck me like the bright ocher of the wall in front of me, which had been in front of me all that time but I only really saw at that precise moment.

The soul-work I have now occurs exactly in my relationship with my students, where I find them right now, and what I want them to grow into and become. I was reminded earlier in the summer: school is about relationships. And I could make space for that relational work, the central work of a teacher, if I could articulate the goals that I have for my students across the board. This was a way of truly showing up for my work as a teacher, to practice soul-work exactly where I found myself.

Having been cracked open by the August sun and a wall, I struggled mightily to not immediately start making the list of goals I have for all students, since I was still technically meditating, in a room full of silent meditating people. Practice was still practice. So I held off for a bit, unsuccessfully, but relieved that a change had come.

When I finally sat down to articulate my goals for all students over the course of a school year, this is what I wrote:

  1. Intellectual: Demonstrate proficiency/mastery in all of the content-based learning goals of their course of study
  2. Academic: Develop student skills for the effective, organized practice, absorption, and retention of the content
  3. Social: Interact with peers in small groups productively and equitably
  4. Psycho-spiritual: Practice and reflect on your capacity for creative, authentic work

While the intellectual and academic goals are obviously important, they are balanced with broader social and psycho-spiritual goals that are meant to address the whole student. Similar to the skillful means above, these would help me structure how I talk about my students’ work with them over the course of the year — but these are not means, these are ends. These are what we’re going for. I can see where my students are with each of these, and push their growth where they need it.

I want my students to know more math; I want them to know how to study and understand math, I want them to be able to develop math with and support/be supported by their peers, and I want them to realize themselves as mathematical beings, so to speak.

Everything I’m doing with them is bent toward these goals. When I lose sight of these because I have a fancy new idea about pedagogy, or I’ve read an article about trends in education or politics that make me angry, or I’ve had a conversation with a parent or colleague go in difficult direction, I can remind myself that I’m here to move my students toward these four goals by equipping them with the six skillful means listed above.

Then, rather than pushing away the work because I don’t like it, or getting lost in the work and missing the forest for the trees, I can simply meet the work where it is, renewing my vow to help my students realize the fullness of their participation in math, and the part of their being which is fulfilled by its study. Hopefully, I can continue to respond to them with intelligence and compassion, and bear witness to the reality and potential of their lives.

Well-wishes to all teachers, students, and families — and really anyone who will experience some challenging growth this season. You’re not alone.

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