I vividly remember a mentor teacher telling me early in my career never to let my students see me smile, especially during the first month of school. The content I taught was my job, not getting to know my students.
Well, that was a lifetime ago, and today I smile on day one and work just as hard on building positive relationships with students as I do helping them understand and perform algebraic equations.
That’s not to say this past school year was easy. I teach eighth-grade math—the grade and subject hardest hit by the pandemic, according to the Nation’s Report Card. This year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress data shows that math scores for 13-year-old students have dropped significantly and that pandemic learning gaps aren’t closing at hoped-for rates.
My students, however, made significant strides this year, surpassing goals and expectations on school, district, and state assessments throughout the year. The kids showed up ready to learn at a time when behavioral disruptions are on the rise. In reflecting on the year’s progress, I can say with confidence that it has less to do with the way I teach math and more to do with the way I relate to my students.
Developing positive relationships became a priority. I was fortunate that in the fall of 2021 my school adopted a new social and emotional learning program that I looked to for guidance. However, I believe all teachers can take steps to help students succeed.
OFF TO A GOOD START
I prioritize meeting each student at the door with a smile, a high-five or a handshake, and a quick hello at the start of every class. These interactions allow me to gauge what mindset my students are showing up with and flex my instruction to meet them where they are each day. Informed instruction can look like the following:
- taking time for team-building activities,
- facilitating immediate peer tutoring,
- assigning a student a leadership role during team activities, and
- presenting a complex solution to the class.
I also seek out intentional conversations with specific students who are struggling because there is plenty of evidence that a healthy climate and culture support student learning.
For example, one of my students arrived to class every day reluctant to even greet me. It took time, but I prioritized getting to know his interests and learned what motivated him to do his best. Throughout the year, his scores and his willingness to participate improved when he began to recognize that I cared about more than just his math ability. I cared about him as a person.
A few minutes each day to talk about something positive going on at home, in school, in the community, or in class can go a long way, especially if the students lead these conversations. It’s often not a math-specific conversation, but it develops our class culture and creates a welcoming environment.
Also, information gleaned from these conversations brings lessons to life. This year, I taught a lot of hockey players. I’m not a hockey buff, but I learned enough about the sport to embed examples like calculating the distance and angle of a hockey puck ricocheting off the boards and adding local club hockey references into word problems to pique student interest.
GET THEM TALKING… ABOUT MATH AND MISTAKES
Once you have students talking about life, it’s easier to get them talking about math. Earlier in my career, I was nervous about letting students talk freely because I was worried about losing control of my classroom. But now, I understand that math discussions are essential to build reasoning and problem-solving skills and deepen understanding. Though it’s still not always easy to do well.
Some of the ways I encourage students to engage in math conversations productively are through group collaboration and peer analysis. Talking openly about mistakes, and even celebrating them, encourages students to take risks and share their work without worrying about anyone’s reaction.
This instructional strategy takes time. At the beginning of the year, students with low math confidence or anxiety are reluctant to engage. However, with time, encouragement, and a positive classroom culture, I have found that students can and will participate in this valuable learning tool.
I don’t get a pass. Toward the end of the year, I numbered a test wrong. Boy, did we have a good time talking about Mr. Miller’s mistake and problem-solving ways I could avoid repeating it. As always, it’s good to set class norms at the beginning of the year, and update them as needed, to ensure that these conversations are respectful. In my class, the kids create and update those as needed.
Until this year, I served on the national board that oversees the Nation’s Report Card. I’ve been in a lot of conversations where people were worried about the future of middle or junior high students like those I teach. But I’m much more optimistic. Early teens, for the most part, want to do well—for their sake and for those who care about them.
One of my students, a girl who started the year off with terrible math anxiety, wrote me a note in May saying she still couldn’t say that math was her favorite subject, but she really enjoyed my class and wasn’t dreading math next year. I’ll take that as a win, knowing that my instructional strategies served her well and my commitment to getting to know my students served us all well.