I subbed for one of my colleagues a couple of days ago. This class is a supplemental math class for low achieving algebra students. We only do this in the 9th grade, to give them additional support for a year as they transition to high school and hopefully to help get them closer to grade level. These classes can be very helpful, or not. The one I subbed in, is not. From the moment I set foot in the room it was a nightmare. Two students were eating, throwing food and anything they could get their hands on, one was quietly walking around the room intimidating other students, three were very quiet, attempting to do the work that was left for them, and in my opinion, stay under the radar. I personally was in shock, just trying to keep students from hurting each other or getting completely out of control. There were other incidents, but these were the most thought provoking.

Spending 45 minutes with this group of students made me start thinking very closely about my algebra students. At the start of the year, they too were fairly out of control, trying to run the classroom, use quiet intimidation on me and other students, throw things, yell, run around the room, etc. I spent several months working on curtailing the behaviors, one at a time, with the help of our campus security officers and one of the APs who works with our hispanic youth and gangs. Things have changed quite a bit. I really had to look at what is going on now, and send up a prayer of gratitude.

My classes are not quiet, but the noise is a much better noise. There is arguing over math answers and opinions, students are competing to be the first to answer questions, they are working while in the classroom. They are completing assignments and passing tests, for the most part. There are still approximately 5 students out of my two classes who are failing. Yes, you heard that right, only 5 failing.

Today we were working on some algebra again, parallel and perpendicular lines, slope and distance formula. We need these because we are about to start proving figures congruent by transformations and they will be working in the coordinate plane. A few of the old behaviors started again, and I said, “Wait a minute, you have all been doing so well. You know how to transform figures, you are well versed in symmetry and identifying figures and corresponding parts, what’s going on?” It was the algebra. I reminded them they knew this stuff. We spent quite a bit of time in November and December doing linear modeling and indirect variation. We worked with tasks from Yummymath and Mathalicious and found fun ways to look at lines and graphs and what they were telling us. We were making predictions based on our graphs and creating new graphs from portions of the old. I told them to just take a deep breath, pull out their notebooks and remind themselves what we had done. They did.

I am sitting here writing this wanting to say so much more, but I am overwhelmed by what I have just written and what it means. They trust me. They believe me when I say they are smart and can do math. They feel successful because they have been doing geometry, which they never thought they would get to, they understand it and are getting A’s and B’s on tests. They are having math conversations and understanding what they are talking about and what other students are sharing. And I feel like a new mother who’s baby just started walking. Even the students who are failing are participating to the best of their ability, and laughing and enjoying themselves.

After I left my colleague’s room my thought was, “never again.” But as I reflect on what has happened in my classes it almost makes me feel like saying, “Give me a chance with those kids. They just need to know that someone really believes they can learn.” Almost. Maybe after a summer rest I could really say it and mean it. I’m kind of tired right now, but happy.

I have told my classes ever since subbing how proud I am of them and how great they are doing. I really mean it too.

Out of my years of tutoring plus now I’m teaching, I can count on two hands the number of students who probably legitimately cannot do mathematics.

The rest, it all starts at home. If parents can’t do something themselves, they won’t believe their kids can, either–that’s when the excuses come up. Kids love learning, but only if someone “more established” can acknowledge it, and who’s more established and seen more frequently than the parents themselves?

I agree with you ten thousand percent. Because after the parents, students see their teachers surprisingly more frequently than anyone else. We are the runners-up in convincing them that they have potential.