Dear H, (Student Letter #4)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 4th post in the series.

Dear H,

Yesterday afternoon, after school, as everyone tripped over themselves in a mad dash out the building for Memorial Day weekend, I quietly sat down to read my Friday Letters. Before penning any of my replies, I glanced through all of the letters, noting who decided to write this week. There were about 10 letters. I saw yours, and looking forward to reading it, placed it on the bottom of the stack.

After replying to all of the others, I finally got to your letter. It was written on a full sheet of paper, which was unusual for you, and it had a pretty traditional fold — halved three times. You started the letter with a brief response to my letter last week and thanked me for playing some good music during class. Then you grabbed me.

You were upset. You have written a Friday Letter every week since the beginning of the school year and you were upset that, because the year was coming to end, you would soon no longer be able to write them. You also mentioned that you have been felt seen this year. Not as a student, but as a person. You said that you appreciated my untraditional approach to teaching and how I work hard to get to know and support my students. You were bothered that in a month I would no longer be your teacher. There was more, but you know that already.

Before even finishing, I stopped. Feeling a surge of emotion preparing to swallow me whole, I looked up. Hoping to steady my thoughts, my eyes found the window and I focused on the balcony of a high-rise building in the distance. My mind couldn’t help but race through the challenges I’ve faced this year in reaching my students. Several key moments surfaced, along with several students — including you.

Through some stackable moments, I’ve gained so much perspective during the 2018-19 school year. I’ve openly shared this with y’all during class, but through my conversations with y’all I’ve learned to perceive my students so much more deeply than in the past. Heck, I perceive myself way differently, too. Mostly, though, I’ve been able to acknowledge and welcome the emotional side of teaching and learning, a side that the system says can’t and shouldn’t exist because our intellect should always be front and center.

But to hell with the system.

I’ve found myself attached to y’all in ways that are unlike anything I’ve known before. I’m bound to y’all through the human spirit, through love. A parental sort of love, one that extends beyond the Do Nows, uniforms, and exams. And this has changed everything. Like no other time in my career, I consciously deliver my authentic, flawed, sensative self to y’all each day. And I’m getting the same thing in return.

I’m so damn proud to be your teacher.

You should know that with this increased closeness has come earnest self-doubt and questions. And they cut deep. Mostly, I’m unsure about whether I’m in the right. Like, what purpose am I serving? Are my energies hitting the target? Am I too ambitious? Do I initiate conversations that are too aggressive, too forward? Should I be more practical, just like so many of the other stolid teachers that I feel so distant from? Should I play it safe and just teach? Does my personal responsibility to y’all even matter? Am I fighting a losing battle? Can I even make a difference, especially when there are so many factors that are outside of my sphere of influence? Despite all of the hope that I pour into room 227, my glass often seems empty.

I’m rambling. Sorry. My point is that, despite my haphazard uncertainty, your letter gave me faith that I’m fighting the good fight. You nudged me away from practicality. You assured me that my efforts to be an agent of change — to work passionately to understand and mentor y’all far beyond your abilities to create exponential models — have not been trivial. In short, your letter was so important to me. I needed it more than you know.

I did manage to finish reading your letter and write my response, but not without a couple deep breaths. Thank you for being so kind. Thank you for the inspiration. You have been a wonderful student this year, but an even better human. Know that I’m a significantly better teacher — and person — because of you.

Talk soon,

Mr. P

Dear M, (Student Letter #3)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 3rd post in the series.

Dear M,

I’ve had you as a student for two years now. I’ve gotten to know you well. It pains me think about your struggles because your feelings towards math have soured while in my class.

Last year was good for us, productive. It was the first half of the two-year track for algebra 2 that you were involuntarily placed in by our school. You worked hard all year. Asked lots of questions. I found you very capable. Little did I know what was bubbling underneath the surface.

This year I assigned the Mathography in September. In yours, you opened up about your strong dislike for math through the years and how being placed in a two-year course against your wishes affected your self-worth. It made you feel inadequate as a learner of mathematics. Given our experiences last year, I found both of these things surprising. I should’ve known. That’s on me.

I made a focused effort to listen to you more this year. During our talks — all during class time mind you — you’ve helped me feel the negative emotions that can come with learning math. From jump, you shared your frustrations about the class, about our school. Being a small crop of seniors in a sea of sophomores and juniors taking the class, you looked inward and wondered why you were so bad at math. M, you are not bad at math. We made you believe that.

Hearing your story firsthand and seeing your tears hit home. I told you that for the last two years I lobbied for our school to reform how we track students in math classes. No one has listened to me. While we do a lot of things right here, tracking has created a social hierarchy within our school that is hurtful and unjust. It shames students and reinforces stereotypes about math that you know well. You are a product of this system. I’m sorry for being part of the problem.

But my weak apology and efforts to advocate for systemic change on behalf of students like you don’t matter. Not at this moment. Not now, in late April, when you’ve all but given up. I had my chance to do something different, to help you engage, to help you find a purpose to our class, and I didn’t. We had a few small wins, but nothing consistent. No lie, I get frustrated with you — like I did today with the quiz. I can’t escape my own flaws, M. I wish I could. I’m being pulled in so many directions during class, the needs so great and so diverse, that instead of being creative and resourceful, I indirectly place blame on you. Again, this is on me.

Now you’ve lost interest in achieving anything meaningful through math. Respectfully, you come back each day to spend another 45 minutes in a haze of confusion. While never rude, you’re in so much pain that you laugh and make a self-deprecating joke anytime I approach you about grades or hand back assessments. I want you to know that this eats away at me.

I can only hope that somebody down the road can help you reconnect with math. I know it won’t be me and I’m ok with that. I hope that when you discover success through math, you relish it in all its glory. Stay in touch.

Sincerely,

Mr. P

 

Dear E, (Student Letter #2)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 2nd post in the series.

Dear E,

I noticed early on what your passion was: art.

Boy-oh-boy, you were always drawing in class. While we were discussing geometric sequences, you were doodling another character. At first, I wanted to tap your desk immediately — and most times I did. I had to. You were struggling to grasp concepts and I was worried about you. I didn’t want you to fall too far behind.

But as the months passed, and the more frequently I observed you drawing, the more appreciative of you I became. After learning from another teacher of the pretty rad animated short film that you made, I realized that what I thought was doodling, was in fact so much more. It was — and still is — a definitive part of your identity.

Fascinated, I started picking your brain. I wondered how all this works for you. I tried to imitate your (famous) cat drawing. I thought it was pretty good. I even asked you to teach me how to draw.

Then, after winter break, you shared with me — and the entire class — that your New Year’s resolution was to improve at math. I was proud of that goal and how you made it public, but I’m prouder of the progress you’ve made in reaching it ever since. E, I see a change. I’m glad the notebook that I gave you is helping. You have deeper thoughts now, more to give. More to share. You’re more engaged now than you ever have — you were even giddy over an exponential modeling problem the other day. I’m impressed to see this side of you that I always knew was there.

It’s hard to admit that when I see you drawing in class nowadays, I don’t rush in to bring you back to math. I pause. You’re in your own world, doing what you do. Your appetite for a good drawing is hard to interrupt. I know, I know, there’s a place and time for that — and it’s not in math class. I guess I’m not a teacher’s teacher because there’s something about you being immersed in what you acutely love during class that doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should. I wait as long as possible before I tap your desk, bringing you back, stopping you from finishing a nose or eye or mouth.

When that happens, my bad. But can you show me the finished product after class?

Sincerely,

Mr. P

P.S. By the way, I’m still waiting for my first lesson.