Truly Wonderful and Getting Better

  • November 2018

    “Truly wonderful and getting better” is a phrase I often use to start conversations with students, teachers, or anyone with a stake in education. I typically introduce “Truly wonderful and getting better” as a response to the question “How are you doing?” Then I might follow up with “What makes you or your work truly wonderful?” and “What are you doing to get better?” Too often my follow-up questions startle people because I believe they are rarely asked to reflect on how wonderful they are as learners, teachers, and people and what in the moment they are working on to get better.

    Recently, I gave a presentation to a group of teachers in which I discussed how I used “Truly wonderful and getting better” with teachers and learners. Later that day, I encountered a teacher who had attended the session and asked her, “How are you doing?” She responded, “Truly wonderful and getting better.” When I asked what made her work truly wonderful, she replied by describing the work she was doing to understand her students as individuals. She said, “I can’t teach them math well until I understand their feelings, vulnerabilities, and what motivates them. My students make me truly wonderful.”

    Understanding the strengths and motivations of students should be embedded in the daily work of all teachers (Aguirre, Mayfield-Ingram & Martin, 2013). To “What are you doing to get better?” the teacher said, “I used to think of myself as only a math teacher. I made distinctions between teaching math and teaching people. I remind myself daily that I teach people. I try to get better at creating an environment where my students feel socially, emotionally, and mathematically safe.” Mathematics teaching involves not only helping students develop mathematical skills and mathematical understanding but also empowering students to see themselves as capable of participating in mathematics. She continued by describing ways she will incorporate “Truly wonderful and getting better” into her teaching.

    I have been fortunate to be able to travel and interact with teachers of mathematics who are truly wonderful. A common characteristic I find among these teachers is that they continually reflect on the ways their choices and practices impact their students as learners of mathematics. That is, they are mindful of how their choice of tasks, creating safe spaces, and developing structures for discourse and practices position learners as competent. I find that these teachers have a sincere respect for students as people and that they have a willingness to strive to get better. I am reminded of Horn’s (2017) comment “…who we are as teachers shapes what we do to reach the students we teach.” (p. 25)

    Teachers’ mathematical identity shapes the ways teachers reach and interact with students. Mathematics teacher identity consists of knowledge interwoven with lived experiences, which inform teaching views, dispositions, and practices to help children learn mathematics (Aguirre, Mayfield-Ingram, & Martin, 2013). Teachers’ own experiences as mathematics learners are a powerful influence on their identity as mathematics teachers. Likewise, teachers’ life experiences shape their disposition and practices with regard to race, class, gender, and language. I encourage teachers of mathematics to reflect on the range of personal and professional experiences that contribute to their identity as mathematics teachers. I use “truly wonderful and getting better” as an entry point for reflection in my conversations with teachers.

    With many teachers more than a quarter through this academic year, now is a good time to reflect on the truly wonderful things occurring in schools and classrooms as well as to consider those things we can do to get better. Additionally, this time of year lends itself to checking in on colleagues or developing professional collaborations. Not only should we engage in our own reflections, I would encourage you to start conversations with colleagues by asking them about the truly wonderful things going on in their classrooms, and then asking what they are doing to get better professionally. Such conversations might lead to opportunities for professional collaborations such as peer observations, co-planning of lessons, co-teaching, and seeking other professional activities. Effective teachers of mathematics not only collaborate but they also focus their collaborative efforts on improving instruction as well as demonstrating collective responsibilities for each and every learner. Developing expertise as a teacher of mathematics is a career-long process requiring continuous reflection and collaboration.

    I encourage you to engage in your own “truly wonderful and getting better” reflections. Then please share your thoughts on

    Robert Q. Berry III
    NCTM President

    Aguirre, Julia, Karen Mayfield-Ingram, and Danny Martin. 2013. The Impact of Identity in K-8 Mathematics: Rethinking Equity-Based Practices. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

    Horn, Ilana Seidel. 2017. Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join in. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.