How do I know if I’m any good as a teacher?

Sometimes teaching is a very lonely profession. For the majority of your day, you’re completely on your own with no colleagues to bounce ideas off of or get approval from.

This afternoon I was grading tests and the class was doing so horribly on them that I had a total crisis of confidence.  I started to worry that I am actually getting worse as a teacher. The truth is, I’m a bit sick of this class. They were not a fun class last year when they were still cute 2nd graders (=American 8th graders). Now they’re in the throes of puberty and it’s become a real drag to teach them — they don’t work hard enough and therefore they’re not performing well. But isn’t that my fault as much as theirs? Isn’t it my job to motivate them and help them achieve, regardless of how (legitimately) annoying some of them are? Obviously I’m doing something wrong within the class itself.

Then I also started to worry that beyond my failures in motivating the students, maybe this test I gave suddenly exposed weaknesses that had been hiding throughout the years. Being that I am one of the few teachers teaching in English in my school, I am often completely (or almost completely) on my own and have no one to collaborate with. I like that in some ways, because I can set my own pace and design my own assessments…but what if I’ve been designing poor assessments? I was out for surgery for a week, so I didn’t have the time to focus on making my own test. So I took questions from a Dutch colleague’s test that covered the same material. They were hard! Harder than I’d normally give.

One question in particular was a killer: if $f(x) = x^2 + (2p-1)x - 2p$, for what value of p will the function touch the x-axis just once. It should be noted that they’ve done lots of these types of problems — they know that when a parabola touches the x-axis only one time that the discriminant is zero, and they’ve worked with parameters before. What was different about this problem is that in every other problem they’ve done, the b-value was something like 3p, a monomial not a binomial. The simple act of changing b to a binomial made them all fall apart. Not a single student in the entire class got it fully correct.

I asked my colleague and she said that her students didn’t do well on it either, but does that mean the question was too hard, or does it mean that it’s a great question because it exposes faulty thinking? What if all along I’ve been giving tests that are not cognitively demanding enough? What if I’m actually holding back my students’ achievement by not only being annoyed by them but also by not properly assessing them? How do I know that the assessments I’m creating are rich enough?

I got so upset sitting in my classroom alone this afternoon marking these terrible tests (it should be noted that this wasn’t the only terrible question — and they did poorly on things that weren’t even hard), that I had to leave and have been reflecting on this ever since.

do feel alone in a lot of ways. I’m the only person teaching three out of the five courses I teach. In one department where I work, I really truly do not have a partner. In other departments there are like-minded people, but somehow there’s never the time to collaborate. Then I read all the #MTBoS stuff and it sometimes makes me feel worse about my practice, like, shit, am I doing things all wrong, am I lazy, am I not tech-savvy enough, am I not connected enough? And even though I take some inspiration from what I read in #MTBoS, I often feel alone here too — most folks blogging are doing so within the American system, whereas I am working within the IB and the Dutch TTO system. I want to pick people’s brains — what textbooks are you using? what tasks are you giving? how are you incorporating the Areas of Interaction and the upcoming Global Contexts?

So yeah, teaching is a lonely profession.

Middle Years and Upper Grades math teacher in the Netherlands teaching both within the Dutch national curriculum and the IB MYP and DP.
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3 Responses to How do I know if I’m any good as a teacher?

1. First of all, no American 9th grader that I have ever met could have solved that problem. There may be a few out there, but I’ve never met them. Secondly, #MTBoS is a lot like Facebook. For the most part, people share mostly good ideas, and thus seem really smart. Very few admit failures or insecurities (so make sure you follow my friend, Justin Aion, for a regular dose of humility).

It is very difficult to motivate others, in fact it’s hard enough to motivate ourselves sometimes.

It may be worth it to take a day off from math and do something different with them. Maybe one of those icebreaker kinds of things. Maybe a bunch of games. If you can loosen up and have some fun with them, you may begin to like them more. And if you like them more, everything will be easier.

Just my 2 cents…

• katenerdypoo says:

thanks for this comment jen. i will say that the curriculum is wildly different here in holland (i am american and used to teach in america) but apparently i don’t have any dutch 9th graders who could do it either (though some came close). it makes me feel a little better to know that it’s just a really hard problem and not some sort of intrinsic teaching failure.

i wish i had time to play more games with them (this is every teacher’s problem, no?). we’re entering the home stretch and for this term i only have one lesson with them a week (normally it’s twice a week but in the last term only once). have to power through the curriculum now (how i hate that so much but feel that if i don’t i’m letting my colleagues who will teach them next year down). but you are 100% right — if i like them it will all go better. i think i am just super ready for spring break! one more week. anyway, writing this blog post and hearing back from you was incredibly cathartic, so thanks! 🙂

2. I have done that so many times: think that my assessment questions are completely in line with what they’ve seen and then the actual student responses prove me wrong!

Specifically, about that question–you are asking the kids to do “chunking” when you have them think of (2p – 1) as a single parameter, b. It’s a really important way for a student to read expressions (and it’s the foundation for the Chain Rule & Integration by Change of Variables in Calculus), and it takes (in my experience) several days for kids to learn it, with it explicitly taught. It’s a bit like how when little kids learn to read, they read words and their brains automatically use spaces to separate words, but then they have to learn compound words, like “ice cream” or “vice president” –those are single nouns with a space in the middle of them. “Ice” is not an adjective describing the noun “cream.”