What even IS good teaching?

This has been a weird school year.

I have no idea what I am doing. Most of my class periods end with me thinking about what a mess it was and how it could have gone better.

I am very unorganized. I feel like I’ve tricked others into thinking I have it together, when in reality, I am barely keeping my head above water.

I’m teaching precalculus for the first time in a long time this year. Each student in my class has a unique path, they came to our alternative high school from a variety of other high schools, and they each have different gaps in prerequisite knowledge. It is a 80 minute class that runs from 2:45 to 4:05 pm. It is long and rough. If I am ever observed during this period, my administrator would wonder how I am even employed.

Yet, when I ask my students in the precalc class how it is going, they say they’ve learned more math in the past few months than they have in any other high school class.

How is this even possible?


For the past two years I have been voted as Teacher of the Year at my school. In August I was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. In September, the students at my school voted me as Teacher of the Month, a new recognition developed by our student council.  I must be doing something right…but what?2016-09-09-16-53-24

Here is what I’ve realized:

There is too much focus on what is observable in a class period (bulletin boards, lesson plans, time management) and not enough on the culture and connections that teachers develop with and among  their students.  

For my first 8 years of teaching, I created a rigid plans of what I would teach each day for the quarter and then further developed scripted daily lesson plans and specific homework from the textbook. I then implemented the plan with fidelity. I made no effort to get to know my students, partially because I was overwhelmed making these scripted to the minute plans and then I was concerned about following the schedule during each lesson. While my administrator observations looked good on the surface, students were not really learning much.

Now, beginning with the first day of school, I intentionally work at building a unique relationship with each student. I make sure to find reasons to genuinely value each  of them. This starts with weekly “How is it going?” type questions on their warm up sheets and continues by using their mistakes on “Find the flub Friday” and through feedback quizzes. I also share a lot of myself with them. When we understand each other, my classes are more productive. I still make plans, but I allow flexibility to meet my students where they are. I pre-assess their understanding and readiness through warm ups and then use this to direct our units.

There are (many) days where I have just a terrible lesson, but through listening to my students and leaving space to adapt to their feedback, it appears messy to an observer, but we all learn anyway.

16 thoughts on “What even IS good teaching?

  1. First words have to stop reading and take break. So me!

    Congrats for your achievements. I would say that my students would say, “I love Ms. Z, not sure what she is getting at half the time.”

    This is always the point in the year, when I want to have a magic “Do Over” wand, I have built relationships, but maybe not necessarily built the math the way I planned or thought it would happen.

    Thanks for sharing this with us Lisa. Happy Thanksgiving and keep up the great work.

  2. OMG, What the Actual Fact.

    I feel like I could have written almost every single word of this about myself on any given day about any given block (minus all the recognitions, of course, which you completely deserve!!!). I think it is not uncommon to teachers who care deeply about this work to feel this way much of the time.

    Thanks for giving voice to the complexity of all of this! And happy Thanksgiving!!!

    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  3. Thanks for reminding me that my students need ME not a math robot to get them through lessons they don’t have a connection to. I have to make the connection to them and hope to be the reason to want to learn! Yes, administrators can’t see that in our predefined lesson plan, but I do hope they see it in our student’s faces…hence, your many awards!! Yeah!!

  4. I needed this reminder because I’ve felt the same way this year. I’m teaching 8th grade math and 8th grade science for the first time. Every day feels like a mess and a struggle, but I’m also finding that I’m more flexible with my plans than in years past. Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone!

    Congrats on the award, too!

    -Tom (@trigoTOMetry)

  5. This is so good, Lisa. And congratulations on all the accolades, especially the PAEMST! What you bolded is certainly true. Class culture and connections can be felt, but are largely invisible to a casual classroom observer. How does one measure or recognize what a teacher has done to create this culture? How can the school leadership value the teacher’s connection to students and culture-enhancing contributions? Maybe we need a 5×8 card for Class Culture, akin to SERP’s card for noticing the 8MPs in action (http://math.serpmedia.org/5x8card/)? Every class gives off a vibe when someone walks in. I’d argue that the vibe says a lot about the teacher’s efforts to create it, intentionally or not.

  6. Hello! This post was recommended for The Best of the Math Teacher Blogs 2016: a collection of people’s favorite blog posts of the year. We would like to publish an edited volume of the posts at the end of the year and use the money raised toward a scholarship for TMC. Please let us know by responding via http://goo.gl/forms/LLURZ4GOsQ whether or not you grant us permission to include your post. Thank you, Tina and Lani.

  7. I’m I retired teacher now but I still enjoy reading blogs like this one. You are so right. Relationships are the key. I chose special education as my main focus simply because I could spend more time with each student. Forty years teaching was enough for me. The age I loved the most was the one I was with at the time. I hope you continue to care for yourself – your students will feel that.

    • Wow 40 years!? Thank you for reading and for your comment. I agree completely, class is sometimes more productive if I spend a few hours doing something for myself instead of spending those hours refining a lesson plan. It is amazing how much you can learn about life through being a teacher.

  8. If we could just leave all the paperwork behind, we could get to know our students. I feel like I know less about my students now because I am so loaded down with paperwork.

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