I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the roles I play at work. I made a list over spring break of things I do (more of a concept map, actually) with over a hundred branches and sub-branches. From meeting with industry and higher education partners about job shadowing and other opportunities for our students, to recruiting students into the engineering pathway, to organizing a field trip centered around manufacturing and automation, to collaborating with other teachers around interdisciplinary units (just to name a few of the branches).
My Strengths; My Roles
Today a colleague asked what I thought my greatest strength as a teacher is. Her answer for herself was inspiration. After some thought, I responded that I believe my strongest teacher-quality is being able to quickly diagnose misunderstandings. This helps me see where a student has made a mistake in solving a math problem, or where a student skipped a step in programming the robotic arm [not realizing a motion we take for granted in using our own arms] which is why it is not functioning as expected.
This trait has informed the roles I play at school in my academy and in our engineering department. I am (informally) a first round of IT support to my fellow engineering teachers. Not because I know any more about computers than they do (growing up, I knew less about computers than many in my circle of friends); but because I am quick to see what possibilities there are for the error, or what they may have forgotten to click.
Another strength I think I have is the vision to see big picture connections. Connections between a student’s approach to a problem and a better way to solve it, that can then build on their foundation to create learning. Connections that tie together a complete subject, so that in my mind Algebra 2 with Trigonometry is not just a disjoint sequence of functions and graphing/solution techniques [whether I successfully communicate this cohesiveness I’m not sure]. Connections across subjects: between math and engineering (my two faves), across all four STEM disciplines, between math and art, across every subject in our integrated unit, all of which I’ve talked about on this blog before.
This characteristic has also played a part in my roles at school. Collaboration, including stealing ideas from other teachers, has been instrumental to developing good lessons in my classes (today my students played Log War, an activity from Kate Nowak). So I am thrilled to share ideas and connections with other teachers. I’ve worked on our academy’s integrated unit. I’ve created spaces for Baltimore’s engineering teachers to share documents and ideas across schools. And the vision of how engineering connects to other subjects has driven our program’s growth, fueled by teachers of other subjects who come in to teach an engineering course or two, and help grow the program and academy.
I myself started out as a math-only teacher. After my first year teaching the Algebra 1 / Data Analysis hybrid course, my principal asked if I’d like to spend two weeks that summer learning some engineering (specifically, computer integrated manufacturing) and then teach it come autumn. I was open to the idea, and so the next year taught five math classes plus one CIM class. Over time, with more engineering trainings and a deeper role in building up the PLTW program, the courses I teach have come to be half math and half engineering.
Our engineering department right now has two math teachers, one technology teacher, one science teacher, one JROTC teacher, and two art teachers, all of whom teach from one to five sections of engineering courses and also continue teaching in their primary certification area. As I mentioned, this is a strength of our program in my eyes, since it exemplifies the connections among STEM subjects (note all four are represented!) as well as the connection between art and engineering design. Each teacher brings a terrific outside-subject perspective on engineering, as well as several teachers bringing an inside perspective from their former careers as engineers. Our students benefit learning from people who have these diverse perspectives and who can make all these different connections explicit for our students.
Also prompting some thought about my roles is the question of what roles I will take on as our school moves forward through the turnaround “Expanding Great Options” process. This week teachers found out whether we were invited back for next year or not (“selected staff replacement” is one of the main strategies for turning us around). Emotions ran strong; rumors ran rampant [especially rumors about which administrators would remain with the school and which ones would not]. Between staff taking retirement (early or regular), staff choosing voluntarily to transfer schools, and some being observed and interviewed and then not-invited-back, the school is losing a lot of employees.
I’ve been told that I can remain on in my role as an engineering teacher, but that I will no longer be permitted to teach math. This is budgetary in rationale, since the Office of Learning to Work considers me a career and tech ed (CTE) teacher in a “locked” and centrally-paid-for position and does not want me wasting my time (and therefore their money) teaching a non-CTE subject like math.
Now this saddens me personally, since math is my passion. I’ve enjoyed learning engineering, teaching it, and building the engineering program at our school. But math was my first (and strongest) love. Math is my favorite lens through which to view the world and discover its secrets! Math is also my main area of expertise (B.A. in mathematics, including a senior honors thesis; M.A.T. in teaching secondary math; Maryland certification to teach secondary math).
And the rationale seems pretty silly. Why can’t they just count me as a 0.5 CTE-teacher, 0.5 math-teacher, with half my salary coming from the central office, and half coming from the school? Or whatever fraction is appropriate — another teacher might be 1/6, 5/6. It doesn’t take a math teacher to figure out these basic fractions!
But perhaps more importantly, this news also saddens me professionally. Engineering cannot be separated from math, science, technology, art, etc. They are destroying one of the strengths of our engineering program. I can see our engineering department losing the perspectives and connections brought in by having teachers of mixed subjects. Some teachers who are now only teaching one engineering course will be told they can no longer do so, since I and my other “full”-engineering teachers will need to fill our schedules and can no longer do so with subjects like math, science, and technology. Furthermore, with a narrow focus on engineering only, my own perspective will begin to shift and my broad view of the big picture will begin to shrink, which is good neither for me nor my students.
I respectfully disagree with this new policy, which I see as harmful to my school, my academy (AOE is all about connections with its integrated units!), my engineering pathway, and my engineering students. I shall do my best to see its reversal. But until then, I may be resigned to a change of my most fundamental role: from math-and-engineering-teacher to no-longer-a-math-teacher.
Math Teacher, at least for another month