mathematics teachers believe in students

Every instructional decision I make is based on that sincere fundamental belief – I believe in you regardless of age, ability, skin color, or socio-economic status.

I like to tell the story of when I began teaching. I was assigned to a class of 28 fifth graders, many of whom were “a problem.” The list was delivered to me with lots of dire warnings and well wishes – mind you, no suggestions or strategies, just sort of a sympathetic pat on the back as if to say, “Well, newbie, earn your stripes!” Fortunately, my primary thought was “Fantastic! We will get along just fine.”

I cut out perfect bubble letters spelling out Community and Respect and hung them as the focal point of my classroom. I met my students and told them we would be starting every day in a meeting seated in a circle. We were going to build a community based on respect. Because I believed in them.

These students who were a “problem” because of their behavior, or because they had trouble writing, or couldn’t “do math” began to shine. Immediately. This is not to say there weren’t some bumps in the road – because there were. I was, after all, 23 years old, and new at this. But what I went into teaching knowing was that the power of believing in another human being cannot be underestimated. It did not matter that Matthew was on an IEP, or that Kevin had ADHD and lived in low-income housing, or that Megan was a perfectionist and riddled with anxiety, or that Jenny took care of her sister on nights when her mom had too much to drink. We were all part of a community of learners for the next 180 days. We were all going to work hard. I expected nothing less than 100 percent effort from everyone. It was my job to listen, to support and to inspire, but it was my students’ job to work hard and persevere.

It turns out, I had a growth mindset before growth mindset had been studied and named. I attribute this largely to my father, Richard Coppa, and I have written about his influence here. In 2018 Jo Boaler has become a champion of growth mindset by sharing her message freely on her website with resources for teachers, students, and parents. Steve Wyborney also writes about building a community by posting messages on the classroom wall – much like my community and respect messaging, while folding in mathematics.

Robert Kaplinsky, another math educator who freely shares his expertise on his website recently blogged about his experiences living in a group home for most of his high school career. He shares, “Sometimes when we don’t know what to do or say, we don’t do anything at all … this is not the way to go. They (students) desperately need our help but don’t know how to ask for it. They are looking for someone to love them and make them feel welcome. If at all possible, be that person for them. Be a fan who cheers for their successes. Be a mentor who will listen and give advice. Be someone who believes in them, even when they don’t believe in themselves. They may never tell you thanks, but it will mean a great deal to them.”

And from Glennon Doyle Melton we have the story of a math teacher who would ask her students to write on slips of paper who they wanted to sit next to so she could think about new seating arrangements. But, actually, she was looking for students whose names never were written down as students who might be feeling left out. She tells us, “And what this mathematician has learned while using this system is something she really already knew: that everything—even love, even belonging—has a pattern to it. She finds the patterns, and through those lists, she breaks the codes of disconnection. Then she gets lonely kids the help they need. It’s math to her. It’s math.

All is love—even math. Amazing.”

Author Margie Pearse writes about the 5 non-math essentials for learning math. At the top of her list is the power of belongingness. She writes, “Taking time to build a sense of friendship and family grounded in plenty of shared experiences will help students develop the confidence and motivation they need to do the hard work that comes in learning math.”

Teaching challenging, rich problems in mathematics is an opportunity to let students know you believe in them, and that they CAN solve that problem in front of them. With mathematics, we all have an opportunity to be a seeker of problems and a creator of solutions. As educators, we can point students in the right direction by providing open-ended opportunities, by encouraging mathematical discourse, and instilling a sense of awe and wonder at the process of working hard to figure something out. And, in conveying an “I believe in you” attitude, the learner on the other end of things will know that they are supported, that they are part of a circle of learners, and the magic will happen.

So whether you are a student, classroom teacher, a math coach, a parent, an administrator, I support your journey, and I believe in you!

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