Thursday, March 19, 2009

On Failure, Part 3: Teaching a New Subject

This is part of a two week series on my five biggest failures and five biggest successes as a teacher this year. This week I am focusing on failure, while next week will focus on success.

My sister asked me this past weekend: "Are you going to make things easy on yourself and actually teach the same thing next year?" I argued that I had been teaching Algebra I for four years, with occasional forays into other areas (especially this year). Nevertheless, it made me reflect back on how difficult it had been to teach a full Algebra II class for the first time this year.

In Texas, Algebra II wouldn't be much different than Algebra I because the standardized test (the TAKS) forces teachers to spend a lot of time reteaching the same concepts students were taught the year before.

In Massachusetts, in a charter school where I had a bit more freedom and less extremism in response to test scores, my Algebra II class was allowed to be something closer to what it should be. Unfortunately, I think one of my biggest failures this year was that I haven't done a good job teaching it. There are a number of simple reasons:
  1. I haven't taught a great deal of the material before--in some cases, I haven't done the problems since I was in high school. There were times when I felt like a first year teacher again in this situation.
  2. Having no experience with teaching these concepts means that I didn't have a wide range of engaging, innovative strategies prepared. My resource books didn't push far beyond basic Algebra and I didn't have an exhaustive list of online resources that covered topics like these. Sometimes it was an exhilarating challenge, but mostly it resulted in me beating myself up for perceived incompetence.
  3. Frankly, I taught a lot of topics very poorly. I spent a lot of time fumbling through lessons, realizing I had left something important out or failed to notice a simple way to explain a difficult concept until after I had done so in the most difficult way possible. There have been many days where I've to reteach something from scratch, telling students to basically forget what I said previously. It's embarrassing.
  4. I've held back some of my brightest, most advanced students. There are some kids who are ready for Pre-Calculus if not AP-level work, but my lack of familiarity with the material makes it hard for me to prepare something ahead of time.
It took most of the year for me to settle into this role to a point where I'm confident that I'm preparing students for college level mathematics. I can't shake the idea that if I had some time to sit down and design the kind of activities I'm known for, I'd love to go back and try again from the beginning.

In a Sentence
Teaching a new subject is an incredible challenge no matter how much experience you have.