Sometimes you don’t appreciate something until it’s gone. I knew I loved working with rock star math colleagues, but I didn’t realize exactly how much I loved them until they split to opposite coasts of this huge country and left me alone in the middle. I miss them terribly and figured I should probably take a minute here to really shout them out.
I do believe that much of teaching needs to be figured out by yourself. I designed my whole curriculum and made 99% of the worksheets, do nows, and tests I’ve ever used. I don’t think any of that needs to be packaged and handed to teachers, because there’s so much analyzing and evaluating and scaffolding that goes into creating your own materials to be used by your own unique group of kids. The trial and error can be painful, but it’s worth it when you learn how to think through every step your kids are going to take. Especially if you’re going to be teaching long-term.
Yet let me be clear: I like to do the grunt work of writing each problem and designing each lesson. That does NOT mean I ever want to do all the big-picture thinking all by myself. There is something really invaluable about having smart, thoughtful people around to bounce ideas off of and make sure that you’re heading in the right direction. It’s okay to make little mistakes in daily lesson design. It’s much more disastrous to make mistakes in curriculum planning or strategy when you actually approach a lesson. That’s where you really need other people around.
My first year, I always got to run next door to visit the TFA ’07 math teacher and ask for her advice. I started out clueless and she would feed me ideas, always being careful to explain her logic so that I could eventually think like her (GREAT quality in a math teacher). Gradually, we moved to me being able to propose something, and her taking the time to tell me what was good and what I needed to fix before my kids tried it. Eventually, I was functional on my own, but she was still always there to catch the things I overlooked or help me figure out where I could push my kids farther. It’s ridiculous what intense faith I put in her advice and how precisely I followed everything she ever said.
In my second year, I started planning with another ’09 who thinks amazingly similarly to how I think. We both preferred to pay attention to the day-to-day details by ourselves, but for important concepts or random questions, he was my go-to guy. We would sit and debate what made most sense and how something should be presented to kids. We would think out loud and toss around ideas until we knew something was really good. When a worksheet was especially important, I would email it to him and he would make it better and email it back to me. I’d find a way to make it even better and then send it back to him. He’d see something I missed and fix it, and then I’d find something he’d missed and fix that too. It was a wonderful process that made my work a million times better than how it started.
The problem is that I’ve been spoiled by these people, and I really don’t plan well with others anymore. If someone doesn’t think the way I think or evaluate in the way my former colleagues trained me to evaluate, I just get frustrated. It now takes me longer to work with most people than it would just take me to work by myself, so I get impatient and miss out on the benefits of working with someone who approaches things differently. I feel like a kid about to be labeled “Does Not Play Well With Others” on my next report card, and that’s really not who I meant to be.
I think I got lucky and see some signs of my old friends at my new school, so I have my fingers crossed. I know that three years of good collaboration would make me the most fortunate teacher alive, but if I can’t find people who think like me then I’m destined for a lifetime of pulling out my hair and reading a lot of books. Basically, I need fabulous coworkers or a hefty dose of patience. Hopefully that’s not too much to ask.