As a math teacher of 9th-12th grade students, I frequently reflect on how feedback is given in math classes and the contents of that feedback. But I am also a GLC (grade level coordinator, a sort of “grade dean”) for the entire 9th grade. In that role, I spend a lot of time talking to students and parents, both those in my classes and many who are not. When issues related to math arise, students and parents alike often express a need for “more practice.” When a student does poorly on a test, they immediately ask for more practice, say they didn’t get enough practice, explain that the practice they did was much easier than the test, or question why their practice wasn’t enough. This approach implies that math should just be rote memorization: if you do enough identical examples, you can ace an exam.
But mathematics is not that at all. Instead, it involves reading comprehension, knowledge of vocabulary, a certain fluency with arithmetic required for different mathematical levels, a flow among connected ideas and topics. In fact, many math skills are similar to those in an English or Tanakh class. So I have begun considering how I can shift that mindset, encouraging students and parents to realize that success in math is not just about practice nor the memorization of a process. In fact, mathematical success requires a real understanding of material; it requires having a conversation about the concepts, which must be developed and built. This conversation starts with a relationship between teacher and student.
When you think about courses that thrive on student-teacher relationships, math is not the first course that comes to mind. Perhaps you would envision a Tanakh or Gemara class, which often involve deep and emotional conversations about identity and religiosity. Perhaps you imagine an English classroom where students are encouraged to write about their own thoughts, and where their personalities and beliefs shine through. In a history class, students are passionate about topics related to politics, economics, or modern local and global issues. But many people would say that math class is objective, unemotional, not personal at all. As both a math teacher and a GLC, engaged in daily conversation with my students, I have come to recognize and appreciate that the exact opposite is true. Emotion, care, and subjectivity exist in any class where a teacher and student are working hard and striving to learn, especially in a math class.
That fact has become particularly obvious to me through my Machon Siach grading project, in which I focus on one-on-one relationships to help students grow. I emphasize spending time with individual students to discuss their progress, their struggles, and their successes in my class. Through these conversations and connections with students, I have strengthened my teaching. I’ve learned that it is these relationships that make me a better teacher and help my students become stronger learners.
Once a teacher has a relationship with students, their learning then becomes a much larger and more intricate story. I have a deeper knowledge of their daily struggles and accomplishments. A teacher in relationship with students does not see them as merely a number of points they lost on a test but as individuals who worked hard and gained knowledge that they previously lacked. Even that mental switch of thinking about a student who got an 88 not as having missed 12 points but as knowing 88% of the material really well changes the feeling of the classroom.
I have been spending this year trying to make learning into a constant conversation, prompting growth and evolution. Together, individual students and I are always asking what they or I could be doing better or differently. Doing so paints a picture for me and for them as well. We don’t simply determine that geometry is hard; instead, we fine tune their understanding one detail at a time, so even if they walk in hating math, they can make a plan to move forward. When a teacher really knows her students, “careless error” stops being enough of a reason for someone to have made a mistake. On the contrary, we all know that, on exams, the last thing students are trying to be is “careless.”
Another piece of the learning puzzle is ownership. Students should feel in control of their own learning and growth; they shouldn’t have to guess at their progress. Kids feel accountable when they have an assignment, but when I speak to them directly, they feel a different level of responsibility. Students feel more invested in their learning when they recognize that an adult is personally invested in their learning as well.
Certainly math can often be viewed as objective. After all, the answer is either right or wrong. But what I have observed through my grading project is that this objective view of math is mistaken. In fact, if there is ever a classroom that thrives on emotion and conversation, a math classroom is definitely the one. Talking to my students, getting to know them both in and out of the classroom, really listening to them and figuring out where their strengths and weaknesses lie: those are the techniques that enable students to become stronger and more confident learners.