Honestly, the Math is Secondary

If you had asked me in college, I would have said that the phrase “honestly, the math is secondary” would never come out of my mouth in reference to my classroom. In the last three and a half years of teaching…I’ve said that phrase. Out loud. More than once.

The theme for this week’s #MTBoSBlogsplosion is Soft Skills. Soft Skills are the interpersonal skills, the social behaviors, the habits of learning and communication that aren’t part of your curriculum but are, arguably, just as or more important for your students to learn. Of course the math is still important. I wouldn’t be teaching it if I didn’t think so. Francis Su’s closing remarks as president of the MAA are beautifully moving on the reasons why we should learn and teach mathematics.


When I was searching for jobs during student teaching, I didn’t really know where I wanted to teach. High school? Junior high? Big school? Small School? I pretty much applied anywhere that had an open position in an area where I might want to live, and went to interviews. At the end of every interview, they ask you if you have any questions for them, and I made my question “Why should I want to work at your school over other schools?” because I thought it might help me make a decision. When I asked this at the interview for the alternative high school I now teach at, the principal started crying as she told me about the students there. About how they come to the school feeling like failures in so many facets of their lives. How they haven’t had many people believe in them. How they don’t know how to succeed because they’ve never done it. I knew in that moment that I’d found my school.

My students often don’t know how to act in social situations. They don’t have many role models in their lives. They’re often angry from experiencing failure after failure, from adults who should never say things like this telling them that they won’t amount to anything, that they can’t succeed.

My first goal with a new group of students every year is to know them. As people, not as math learners. I do surveys on the first day of school that ask their most important values, their favorite things, their previous experiences in math class. Based on their most important values selected from a list, I sort them into a Hogwarts house, which gives me an idea of how they might react to certain types of situations and of ways to push them to be better (Gryffindors thrive on competition, for example). These are students that very much do not want to open up. They don’t trust easily, so I have to find sneaky ways to learn more about them until they let me in. I make them list ten things they love, but give them the out that if they can’t fill the list with ten things, they have to finish the list with things that are the color orange. Many of them can only fill in three things before switching to pumpkins.

Every Friday for the whole school year, instead of a math question for their bell ringer, I post a hypothetical question on the board. “If you had a million dollars, how would you spend it on?”, or “If you were a ghost, what building would you haunt?”, “What would be your three wishes for a genie?”.

They write their answers on their opener sheets. They turn them in. They won’t share them in front of the class…until about December, when some of them start shouting their answers as soon as the bell rings. Every week, I read all of their answers, and I respond. Even if it’s just a smiley face. I start asking them questions in class – about their job, about their grandma who’s sick, about the TV show I know they love.

Slowly, they start to turn the questions back on me. They ask how my weekend was, if I got to see my nephew. They congratulate me when the Packers win. They want to know my answer to the Friday Question (I would haunt Madison Square Garden). As this happens…they do more math. They open up. They learn to trust. They get small successes and want more. They realize that when they ask questions (silly ones or math ones) they get answers.

No one is allowed to judge other people’s answers. They can ask questions to learn more, but they can’t call an answer dumb or boring or weird. They learn to treat themselves and others as people whose opinions matter. That how it has been for them does not have to be how it continues.

When you remember that you’re teaching people, the content becomes easier for them. When they know that they matter to you, they’re willing to ask questions until the Quadratic Formula makes sense.

My email signature contains a quote from Harry Potter: “Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.” I don’t even begin to believe that I can ‘save’ them all. Not every student passes my class. Some of them leave with the same attitude they came in with. But ‘every human life is worth the same’? That I can show them. That, we can work on.

I have a student who came to us after dropping out for awhile. He barely scraped by in my class last year, rarely speaking, never turning in assignments on time. He sat in my room for a whole afternoon on finals day with me convincing him to keep trying assignments until he left at the end of the day saying “D-? Good enough.”

He won student of the month last month. He earned a B in my class this year. He told me a fifteen minute story about how he watched YouTube tutorials to learn how to fix his phone screen by himself to save money. He finished his assignments on time and then spent his spare time in class working on challenges I had posted. He tells me some of the funniest jokes and stories. He asks me for advice.

Do I think my Friday Questions caused this transformation? No. It was a lot of things, and most of them weren’t even involving me. But through the questions, I learned how much he loves drawing, how important family is to him, and how funny he is. From his intro survey this year, I learned that he’s a Ravenclaw, which helped me to seek out and push his curious and creative sides.

He graduates tomorrow.

Honestly, the math is secondary. (But he learned a lot of math, too.)


Author: missmastalio

Math teacher at an alternative high school. Living the best life.

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