Last week, I was invited to speak at Math for America’s Master Teachers on Teaching (MT2) event. It’s a special evening that consists of several TED-style talks from MfA teachers on topics that connect to teaching and learning. I’ve been to many MT2s in person and have always walked away inspired. It’s one of many ways that MfA privileges teachers and their voice. This was the ninth annual MT2 — and the first virtual one. The theme was Disruption: Finding a Way Forward.
Motivated by folks like Patrick Honner, who has presented at multiple MT2s, and Patrick Callahan, a school colleague who has also presented, during the last few years I’ve been thinking increasingly about public speaking and the role it could play in my practice. But, before maybe last year, I would have never thought about submitting a proposal to an event like this. For one, I never had the confidence. Who wants to listen to me? Pft. Second, aside from a personal challenge, I struggled to see the value in it for myself. Why would I give a talk like this? What purpose would it serve me?
Unexpectedly, this year was different. Somehow I found both the confidence and the personal need to submit a proposal to speak. I think remote learning played a big role. It’s been hard out here. Being isolated from my students, my classroom, and my colleagues, I have struggled to find meaning this year from behind a screen.
This emptiness has lingered since the spring, but landed on my shoulders differently this fall. And despite my hopefulness, I couldn’t shake it. I sensed this and began feeling a need to fill the void, to find an outlet, to heal. I needed to find something that could give me meaning, something that could help me survive my losing battle with remote learning.
I pitched my talk. It embraced the obvious: just how misplaced and confused I am now that I’m not in my classroom. I wanted to use it to explore the relationship that I’ve had with my classroom though the years and how it shaped the teacher — and man — I am today. Somewhat shockingly, MfA liked it.
I dove in to planning. I identified several key moments from the classroom that broadly defined the role my classroom plays in my life. To help make it tangible for anyone who actually decided to listen, I decided to connect these moments with physical objects in the room, like the doorway, SmartBoard, and floor. Jen Cody and Michael Paoli coached me throughout…and helped reel me in. Michael also provided the last line of the talk, which was killer. Jen helped me with the simple and fitting title: Room 227. I’m thankful for their guidance and ingenuity.
Of the six speakers, two of which were emceeing, I was slotted to speak last. This may have added to my nerves a bit, watching five others tell their story before mine, but, in the end, the talk itself went fine. I was pleased with it. I was nervous at the start, but soon found my groove. In fact, about 2/3 of the way through the talk, I was doing too well…and noticed it. I hadn’t stumbled over my words or fidgeted, as I had done in my many recitals of the talk. So, when I started talking about the chairs of my room, out of no where, for about 30 seconds, my nerves began to swell up within me again. Not being in front of a live audience — not being able to find eyes and individualize my words, which I would much prefer — only added to my sudden anxiety. Standing there in my living room, I fought back, touching my face and head. By the time I started talking about how my students shave my beard, I got out of my own thoughts and found my stride again. I finished strong.
Aside from my talk, which was packed with emotion, I naturally lead with my emotions both personally and professionally…which sometimes gets me into trouble. But in a situation like this, in the middle of a global pandemic, with teachers and students experiencing so much, I think leading with emotion actually benefited the talk and honored the moment. At least I hope so.
Math for America has provided me with so many outlets for growth these last eight years, but this one was special. I needed MT2 more than ever. Having spent the last six weeks searching for language to capture my despair and disconnectedness and then using the spoken word to let it all out, I find myself in a better place now. I’m still fed up and feeling unloved and lost in being removed from my second home, but less so.
MT2 was my deep breath. And now I’ve exhaled.