Thursday, February 11, 2010

Humility, student teachers & chess

The math department has five amazing student teachers this semester. They eat lunch together and we talk math. They are like a team, and they provide a sort of community of support for each other and for us. Our tutoring program has a new feel because we have the presence of an army. Partly by luck, partly I think because of the safety that so many of them can provide, they are more confident and comfortable in our school than any student teachers I've ever seen. They are going to learn a lot because they are already so willing to throw themselves into this. It's so beautiful to see their generosity, their new bright eyes, to hear their arguments and passionate brainstorms.

It's my second time having a student teacher. Last semester when I dropped off my blogging, it was in part because I was so humbled by the constant witness of my student teacher that I hardly ever had anything positive to say about what was happening in my classroom. In many ways, having a student teacher brought me back to the ego bashing of my first year. Who was I to teach anyone how to do this? Lord oh lord.

This time around, I know what to expect a bit more. I know that it can be hard to have someone watch me do this job every minute. It's hard just to have someone else that I've got to be around all day long. It's hard to have anyone else that I'm responsible for teaching. But I'm ready, I'm brave, I'm humble, I'm honest. I'm trying to trust that just by doing the job that I do and being the person I am I can support this new addition to our field. I know a bit better what it is that I'm good at. It's worth it to try to share that.

This feels better from my perspective of course, but it also makes it easier to encourage him to critique me, to ask me why I'm doing what I'm doing, to question my motives and offer his own ideas to improve my classroom. That's half of what I can do for him, and it's a wonderful thing to let go of my own pride enough to let him do that without letting it get under my skin or make me question myself on a fundamental level.

Of course the other half of what I can do for him is to be the best and clearest model of passionate, mathematical, thought-provoking, community-supporting teaching that I can. That practice, that aim, can only be great for me and my students.

This afternoon my student teacher and I went to chess club together. He reminded me how to set up my pieces and then I got to play LOJ, an 11th grade kid I taught when he was in 9th grade. This kid is truly one of the most distracted students I've ever taught. He's spent three years wandering around in the halls and talking through his classes, mostly about whatever the class wasn't. He's more mature now, and I don't get frustrated with him anymore, but I also don't know how useful school has been for him. I've always known he was capable and smart but today was the first time I had ever seen him focus on one thing for more than 2 minutes. And the kid was freaking awesome. A great player, schooled me in a serious way, beat the crap out of me, and was utterly focused on his game when he needed to be. He was quiet, thoughtful, generous in his advice to me. Beautiful.

Also beautiful was my explicit willingness to lose this game to a student. I haven't played chess more than four times in my life because I hated feeling so bad at something. Today was the first time in over a decade that I've touched a chess piece, and I feel like I let go of something adolescent that was holding me back. Hoorah.

As always, may this find you all happy and inspired, able to love yourselves and your students.


  1. Ah, chess and attention...

    What do you think LOJ would say if I asked him whether or not learning how to focus on a chessboard has helped him focus elsewhere?

    I really want to know. I'll be excited if he thinks it has.

    (Me myself, I was prone to long periods of intense focus anyway, and already in love with the experience of problem solving, and had a mostly latent competitive streak, so chess was kind of like a drug. I think it may have done me more harm than good. But I know its power firsthand, and I'm excited to hear a story about that power being harnessed in the service of good ;)

  2. Thank you for linking to my blog Jesse from Brooklyn. And we're the same age! Since you made me think of him, another 29 year old blogger you should check out:

    I will return soon... Math is a bit scu'rry for me, so have patience. :-)