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December 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 4

One to Grow On / The Chance to Test Our Mettle

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Years ago, a colleague told me a story that has lingered in my memory. In an elementary school where she'd taught, students across the board were doing poorly in math and disliked the subject. Most teachers weren't enthusiastic about it either. The principal observed classes often and came to realize that even he was inclined to skip math.
One day, the principal came on the school's speaker system to ask that all teachers gather students' math textbooks and teachers' editions and bring them to his office. Puzzled, the teachers complied. He sent a note back to the teachers, which said simply that he anticipated keeping the books for some time but that he would let teachers know when they were once again available.
These teachers' puzzlement rapidly gave way to serious anger. How did the principal expect them to teach math without the textbook—to students already lagging in proficiency?
Although the anger didn't subside, reality took over as teachers realized they had to prepare for the next day's math lesson. They tried to recall what exercises came next in the book. That approach wasn't helpful, of course, because they didn't have the books and they couldn't recall sets of problems or even the exact order of topics.
The teachers began to do something they'd never tried before. They met by grade level each afternoon to share thoughts about the next day's math plans. Although this approach enabled them to draw on one another's best ideas, even that wasn't adequate; they were teaching math lessons as single activities without a clear view of the important understandings they should help students develop.
One teacher suggested that teachers talk with students about the topics they felt they needed to explore to feel confident with math and what ideas they had about how they might best learn about those topics.
So they tried it. Many teachers asked students how they thought they could use fractions in their own lives, for instance, or how the classroom could be set up to work with math ideas most effectively. Some created suggestion boxes in which students placed ideas for learning about a particular topic. Teachers challenged students to look for math at work in magazines, books, or on television shows. Some teachers asked students to interview people they knew about how they used math in their work or hobbies.
Students suggested lively ideas for practicing and applying what they needed to learn. Because their suggested approaches were connected to things students cared about, they had a logic born of student need.
Instead of just turning to the next unit, teachers began thinking about logical progressions of concepts. Listening closely to what students said they didn't understand helped the teachers think more deeply about why students struggled at certain points. What did students really have to understand before subtraction could make sense to them, for instance? What were varied ways to help learners grasp what it means to "carry" a number?
Teachers, too, began looking beyond the school doors to see how math concepts appeared naturally in the world and how they might teach them in a meaningful context. Math class unexpectedly became students' favorite part of the day. Soon, math achievement rose noticeably.
Months later, my colleague reported, the principal announced that teachers could retrieve their math books whenever they'd like. No one came.

Honing Our Mettle

These days, a likely response to this story would be, "That couldn't happen now—not with the pressure to prepare students for standardized tests. A principal could never take math books away from teachers! In fact, many principals want to provide texts with even tighter scripts for teachers to follow."
My colleague was not sharing a story about math, textbooks, elementary school, or even leadership. The main lesson she learned from being pushed to find her way without standard resources was broader. "I've always been glad I had that experience early in my career," she reflected. "It helped me understand that good teaching is a creative act."
This teacher—whom I knew early in my career—showed me a valuable way to think about teaching. I never saw her get frustrated when something didn't go according to plan in her classroom. I never saw her react angrily or with a sense of entitlement when resources were scarce nor blame a student or family when a kid had a bad attitude. These things weren't the downside of teaching for her; they were opportunities to test her mettle, reminders to draw on the insights of her colleagues, her students, and their parents.
When a student didn't grasp an idea or seemed disconnected from the contents of her class, this teacher's response was likely to be, "I can find another way to make this better." When a student was a quick learner who clearly needed challenge beyond the parameters of a lesson or grade level, she got energized about learning along with that kid. When she felt in a rut with her teaching, she'd look at what musicians, painters, or children do to find inspiration and apply that to her work. Students talked about her classroom as one in which something new was always happening—a place that required them to be creative learners.
Her reactions embodied resourcefulness—the quality of being able to deal with a difficult situation. She came to believe that teaching was the best job she could have to develop her own capacity while simultaneously trying to develop the capacity of students.
Among synonyms for resourcefulness are imagination, perseverance, artfulness, canniness, cleverness, deftness, facility, and inventiveness. How cool to perceive one's job as honing those attributes!

At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.

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