Change at the top


Today, about one week from the first day of school, I learned that my principal is leaving our school. He came into at our school six years ago as an assistant principal. After a couple years he was promoted to principal. Now he will be promoted to a superintendent position in the New York City Department of Education. He will no longer be my supervisor.

I couldn’t be happier. But not for the reason you’re probably thinking.

Many teachers despise, or at least dislike, their administrators. Administrators are stereotyped by teachers as being overreaching, bossy and dominant. No matter where you work, it can be hard to ‘get along’ with the person who is in charge. I mean, essentially, they have to tell you what to do. They do this by making clear their expectations and goals for the company/organization. Often times conflict arises here for obvious reasons. The same things apply to the teacher-principal relationship.

In that regard, my experiences with my now-former principal has been utterly atypical.

I’m happy because I realized today that during the past six years I have experienced immense growth, both personally and professionally. This is due in large part to my now-former principal. In some unbelievable way, he always pushed my professional career to another level. It was like magic. I don’t know how this guy did it. I swear, just when I thought I could give no more as a teacher, he constantly found a way to maximize my strengths which then allowed me to dig deeper. And there was never any pressure. It was all about development; being a better teacher, better collaborator, better role model for our students. He inspired me to see things differently, be imaginative, and never be satisfied. His tireless drive, constant need for improvement, keen leadership, and overarching transparency will have an everlasting effect on my career. I’ve learned so much. He came through for me in ways that he will never know.

I got certified as a teacher long ago. But I feel like I truly became a teacher under his guidance. I cannot be the only teacher that feels this way. I guess this is part of the reason why he’s being promoted to superintendent.

I will surely miss not having a daily, working relationship with him. But I’m incredibly fortunate that I’ve had one during the last six years. For without it, I am confident I wouldn’t be who I am today.



#BikeSchoolBuilt: I’ll never look at my students the same way again

Bike School
At UBI overhauling a bike

Following a passion of mine, two weeks ago I ventured to Portland, Oregon and attended United Bicycle Institute (UBI). I took their Professional Repair and Shop Operation course and learned a good deal about bicycle mechanics, but learned even more about myself and my students. Because of this course, I will never look at a bicycle the same again. At the same time, I’ll never look at my students the same way again either.

Let me provide a bit of background. The course, and school, is highly specialized. You don’t go there unless you have a undying love for the bicycle. The tuition is not cheap, but you pay for what you get: a world-class education. They are only one of two schools that do what they do. People travel from all over the world to go to UBI. Out of the 19 people in my cohort, there were two students from China and two from Chile. The bicycle mechanic certification United Bicycle provides is recognized by most bicycle shops as a prerequisite for employment as a mechanic. In other words, if you want to learn about bikes, you come here.

With all that being said, I went into my two-week professional repair course with limited knowledge about bicycle mechanics and virtually no background in the field. I’m a high school math teacher. I mean, I do minor work on my own bikes, but that’s it. There were folks in the class not only with far more bike mechanical knowledge than I, but also much more hands on experience with regards to bicycle repair. Many of the people in the class were already bicycle mechanics, they just needed to be UBI “certified.”

I say all this to say the course was very challenging for me. Let’s get real. Simply put, I struggled.

I really didn’t expect to struggle with some of the concepts like I did. Before the course, all the wrenching I did on my bikes was fairly straightforward. When I enrolled in the course I said to myself, “Okay, you’ll learn some new things about bikes and you’ll apply them pretty smoothly.” My expectations were met with a cold, hard reality. I found myself falling behind the rest of the class and I got frustrated because I couldn’t keep up. I worked slower and needed extra time to process almost all of the procedures. Everyone else seemed to breeze through it all. I worked through breaks and after class to catch up. Despite my extra effort, I still felt like I wasn’t on the same playing field as everyone else. I constantly asked for help from the instructors and peers. On several occasions, I wondered wether I would ever “get it.” I also found myself questioning whether I even belonged in the class…I was obviously not as skilled as most of the other students.

In the midst of all my frustration, there was a instant moment of clarity. Being over 3,000 miles away from my classroom and taking a class that on the surface had nothing to do with my career, it struck me hard. I realized that my deep-rooted, I-want-to-quit frustration was what some of my own students experience on a daily basis.

I knew, in that moment, I would forever view my struggling students differently. Reflecting on my eight years of teaching in New York City, in that instant I suddenly understood that I never truly knew. I never knew what it felt like to struggle to the point of giving up. I never understood how it felt to be the one always falling behind. I never understood how it felt to have the course material flying by at the speed of light and barely being able to grasp the concepts, if at all.

Thankful for the struggle

Now I understand. As I sit here, I’m wondering how I taught for so long without knowing this. I’ve always been faced with challenges, but somehow the obstacles I faced at UBI were more personal than all the others. This is why they hit me harder and stand out like they do. In my classroom, I always tried to be sympathetic with my struggling students in years past. I always tried to do whatever I could to help them succeed. But its different now. I literally know how they feel. I can now relate to them in a profound way. That fact alone trumps many other teaching strategies I could employ in my attempt to reach them.

Despite my struggles during the course, by the end I felt much more confident in my ability to diagnose and repair a bicycle. After the culminating exam on the last day of class yesterday, I actually feel confident that I have earned UBI certification as a professional bicycle mechanic [UPDATE: I did receive certification!] Although, as important as my personal growth is, I know that I have a responsibility now to instill such confidence in my struggling students. They too can learn to persevere and battle through frustration. So, just as my ability to repair a bicycle has been enhanced, so has my confidence in aiding my students to use failure as feedback.

I don’t think one of the goals of United Bicycle Institute is to positively impact the students at a small public high school Brooklyn, but they did. I must give a huge amount of credit to the instructors at UBI Portland. Rich, Craig, Dan and Steve were amazingly patient, incredibly competent, and endlessly helpful. They were upmost professionals who wanted everyone in the class to succeed no matter their ability level. They did a masterful job. I learned a great deal from their approach that I will certainly take back to my own classroom. My students thank you guys in advance.

Oh, by the way, anyone need a bike mechanic? ;-)


Inspiring and Humbling

on the bikes
Me, Mike, and Mike on a early morning TMC14 bike ride

It’s been a few days since Twitter Math Camp 2014 and here I find myself reflecting on the whole shindig. If I had to sum it up in one word…I wouldn’t. I would choose two words instead: inspiring and humbling.

I chose those words carefully. During those three and a half days, I was surrounded by folks with amazing ideas. I mean these people are doing AWESOME things with their kids. Because of this, I have nothing but admiration for the other 149 attendees of the conference. At the same time, I realized (yet again) how much I do not know about teaching. I am hungry to learn and gobble up everything I can (be selfish as Lisa put it), but there will always, always, always be more to learn. For this fact, I am deeply humbled by all of the knowledge and expertise I was able interact with at TMC14.

I could on and on about all the ideas I took from TMC14, as this was the absolute best professional development experience I have participated in. I’ll try and simplify some of the tools/resources/sessions/ideas that immediately stand out to me (in no particular order):

  • Plickers – amazing app that essentially allows you to use paper and your mobile device’s cam to poll your audience…just like a set of clickers (response system) would.
  •  60 Formative Assessment Strategies in 60 Minutes – awesome ideas. Check them out, very practical.
  • Steve Leinward’s idea that student’s are poisoned for life when teachers introduce a concept in an ineffective way. Powerful stuff.
  • Justin Lanier’s recommendations of How Children Learn and How Children Fail by John Holt.
  • The concepts of “Make a one/zero” and “Use a one/zero” when simplifying expressions and solving equations (instead of traditional methods). I forget who it was that told me about them, but thank you.
  • Malke Rosenfeld and Chris and the Math In Your Feet sessions. I will never see dancing in a non-mathematical way again. Step, slide, turn! See it action here (1 of 6). #bluetapelounge
  • Not using numeric grades for students. Instead, use stickers and stamps to assign grades. From Andrew Mazarakis. It sounds odd, but removing numbers from the grading system could be useful.
  • Absolute value blackjack from Anthony Rossetti. Just plain fun. Even for high schoolers.
  • Just how awesome Eli Luberoff and the Desmos team is. They are a company truly all about education. How refreshing.
  • Nik Doran and his push for Hinge Questions. I’ve never thought about multiple-choice questions in this very bottom-up, diagnostic way.

I’ve actually thought about this post since we left TMC14, wondering what it would look like. Also, given that it’s my inaugural post, I guess that had something to do with it as well. Part inspirational and part humbling. And now that its done, I’m glad. Reflection is essential to us all. I’m eager to travel on this journey. I cannot guarantee much along the way….but I do guarantee more questions than answers.