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Value of Vulnerability

It has come that time of the year again in which I received the results from the YouthTruth Survey. YouthTruth is a national survey that is given to students to provide insightful feedback on their teacher and their collective experience in the classroom and school. YouthTruth reports on six categories: Engagement, Academic Rigor, Relevance, Instructional Methods, Relationships, and Culture. Honestly, I always experience a sense of anxiety when I receive my scores in the hope that the time and effort that I put into my classroom is reflected through my students’ responses. I like to make the comparison of a teacher to an artist. An artist takes time to craft beautiful pieces in hopes that others would value and appreciate their work. This is the same when our students create beautiful work or solve a challenging math problem. We all seek validation that our work means something and is to be respected. But, please do not associate my anxiety as a negative. On the contrary, these nerves represent the act of being vulnerable to the truth. This is a time where I deeply reflect on my teaching practice.

As teachers, we spend the majority of our year building relationships and the learning capacity of our students, as well as cultivating and crafting our teaching pedagogy. Yet, we tend to overlook the process of reflection. Let me provide you an example of this reflective process. As I opened my survey results, I allowed the truth of my students’ experience to be revealed. I was very happy to see that my students felt that academic rigor, instructional methods, and relationships were a positive experience for them. But, what took me by surprise as well as allowed me to experience some strong mixed feelings (remember we are artists, so we are sensitive to our work) were the results from my learning culture category. As a math teacher, who focuses on creating a learning environment that values academic safety and equity, how is it possible that my students are not consistently experiencing a positive learning culture? What was I not seeing or doing that my students were experiencing daily? As I dug into the responses of my students, I began to deeply reflect on this particular area. I began to feel extremely vulnerable about my craft, but I found this sense of vulnerability absolutely necessary for me to begin the process of growing.

My path to growing began by centering my next year’s goals around the area of creating a more positive learning culture. First, I had to let go of my sense of pride and be honest with myself that I needed support in this area. In such an individualistic, siloed culture (especially one that is experienced in the teaching profession) we tend to try to fix our problems alone as not to seem weak to our administrators, colleagues, and our students. But, it is with the vulnerability of not always knowing how to fix everything that provides us the courage to find the support we need. This is where truth and courage present an uncomfortable experience as Brene Brown states. I communicated this area of focus to my director, mentor, and a few colleagues to create a support system to help me grow. Secondly, I began to deeply reflect and found that I was not always tending to certain areas of my classroom culture, such as always being consistent with group norms, always modeling how to have productive conversations/discussions, and I was not always acknowledging and/or celebrating the act of vulnerability that it takes for my students to share their own ideas in class. Lastly, I was provided a chapter from the book, Necessary Conditions by Geoff Krall, from a colleague that centered on the topic of Math and Academic Safety. The chapter provided information that reaffirmed practices that I used to do in my classroom (i.e having biweekly restorative circles) but also provided insight on an area that I thought I was doing well with. The act of caring in the classroom.

Krall states that there are two types of caring, passive or active. Passive caring refers to the nonspecific attitudes of care from teachers such as simply greeting your students at the door. Active caring is a level deeper in which there is a two-way relationship independent of the student's academic disposition such as inquiring about the well-being of a student at the door.  This was slightly unsettling to me at first because I found myself falling into the passive caring spectrum, on some of the items that Krall listed. Active caring creates an environment for students in which they feel valued and safe. As an evolving culturally responsive teacher, active caring is demonstrated through the development of meaningful relationships with all students, knowing your students’ passions, and pushing your students to participate and achieve academically. Being an active carer allows our students to feel comfortable taking risks and to be comfortable making mistakes and asking skeptical questions in the math classroom (an environment that can be an intimidating experience for some students).

Next year, my classroom will be completely dedicated to knowing and listening to the mathematical thinking of my students. I will use restorative circles as a way to develop a sense of family in which topics outside of academics can be discussed, create culturally relevant, cognitively demanding math tasks that are based on my students’ cultures and communities, and regularly communicate the brilliance of my students’ mathematical thinking publicly and through one-on-one reflections. Although I felt a sense of disappointment, it prompted me to make it an essential priority of getting to know my students deeply, not only as mathematicians but as growing human beings for the next school year.

Listen, even after nine years of teaching, I still find myself growing and in need of growth. As teachers (or artists) we must experience the vulnerability that comes with looking deeply at our work. We have a responsibility to provide ALL our students, no matter what race, gender, sexuality, or etc to feel safe and provide them the opportunity to soar as mathematicians. As we expect our students to be vulnerable in the work they share, we should be the same with ours.

The following post was written by Curtis Taylor-High Tech Middle North County 6th grade teacher.

Wishing everyone a restorative and reflective summer holidays. See you all in the fall!

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