Thursday, December 29, 2016

How to be a Math Coach

As a long response to Math on the Edge, I have a few questions for prospective and current math coaches. Hereafter, I will use the words "we" or "us" to refer to me and/or to the "teachers who you plan to coach".

Here are nine questions. If you can't answer "Yes" to at least one of these nine questions, then you have no business being a "coach".

Subject Matter Knowledge:
  1. Do you know more about math in general than we do?
  2. Do you know more than we do about a specific topic in our subject?
  3. Have you done research in our field that would prove useful to us in the classroom - a new understanding, a new meaning?
  4. Have you spent time creating content that other math teachers have found useful?

Relevant Experience
  1. Do you have experience (that we do not have) teaching our subject at the grade levels we teach?
  2. Do you have significant experience teaching our subject at any grade level?
 Teaching Techniques
  1. Do you know teaching techniques that we do not - new ideas that we could learn from and improve with? Theoretical knowledge is useful.
  2. Do you have a lot of experience teaching anything at any level - experience that might inform someone in a completely different situation? Practical knowledge is useful, too.
  3. Have you done research into teaching that would prove useful to us in the classroom -- cognitive research into children's learning or a change in the philosophy of classroom management or the use of a new technology that makes a true difference -- to the extent that you know this work, know what we might do to improve?
"Yes" to any one of these? Great. If not, don't expect that any of the people you are pretending to "coach" will take you seriously.

If you said "No" to all of that, you are not a coach ... you are an intern and I am coaching you.  I may learn a lot from you, but only as a test subject or a guinea pig in my experiment.

Coaches teach their teams, guide their teams, or at least pressure them into doing things in a certain way together. These people make the team successful, improve the team. If they don't, they're fired. If this isn't what you think you're doing, don't call yourself a coach.

For 1 - 4.
I enjoy talking to, and working with, people who know more than I do about a topic. My education was in engineering, not in pure mathematics and not in secondary teaching. It is refreshing to have Mike Olinick in to give a cryptography lecture to an auditorium full of high schoolers or Jeff Suzuki to give one on an important aspect in math history.  If I could convince Don Steward to fly over and work with us, that would be very cool. Dan Meyer's a good speaker and a good coach and he has ideas that resonate. These people all have something in common: they've worked with math in ways I haven't. I can learn from them and others like them. Even if their contribution is a different way to work with math, like Fawn Nguyen's Number Talks, or visualpatterns.org - these are people from whom we can learn.

If you haven't worked with math in ways that I haven't, if you don't bring anything new to the table, if you aren't improving our/your instruction in SOME way, then you have to be outstanding in some other way.

For 5-6:
If you don't have any experience, what can you offer me? What are you basing your "coaching" on if you have never done any teaching yourself? The bar is higher for you because my field is so very different and my difficulties and problems are not solved by amateurs and dilettantes.

What do you base your "advice" on, if your sole experience is teaching a existentialism course at a small New England prep school? Your research? Your work as a content aggregator? Your charming personality? If your opinion contradicts my own experience, then you need to really convince me that you aren't just another blithering idiot on the Internet.

For 7-9:
If you can't say WHY your new idea/technique is a good one, then I'm not going to take your word for it. I might implement it in my classes but only after considering how the change will play out, what I might do to measure its effectiveness, or at the very least consider how the class is currently running so I have a clear and concise memory to compare the "after" version to.

If all you have is a "yes" in 7-9, then you're gonna need your research, your "proof" or at least a damned good explanation. I want to see that your research/evidence applies to my discipline and my grade levels. Don't tell me that I need to change my HS math classes based on research done on K-2 students. I look very skeptically on any statistics that include Singapore and Hong Kong, or Finland and Norway.

I understand that I am not completely up-to-date on everything to do with teaching. I'm using technology a lot, in some very interesting ways, and my students are doing things I'd never imagined in the 80s and 90s. I read others in the #MTBoS and I travel quite a bit to hear them speak. But I know there's a lot going on out there and I'm in the middle of a very poor section of a tiny state.

SO, if you're going to come into my classroom and tell me to change, for example, to Proficiency-Based Grading, then you had better understand it yourself. If you are going to tell us to re-imagine our teaching in a certain way, then you NEED to be competent in its variations and minutia.

If not, then you're not a coach, you're a pain in the ass.

DO NOT do as our curriculum coordinator did: raise up a book at the first *weekly* in-service (2.5 hours each) and announce that you had just read this idea in this book and you think we all should do it. If you haven't been trained in ThisWork, haven't done any work in or research in ThisWork and your only teaching experience is as a less than stellar elementary teacher whose "specialty" was social studies ... then you shouldn't be a math coach.

DO NOT speak to a faculty meeting and say, "I don't know anything about what you're doing but I've just been hired for this new job to help you with your teaching. Here is a list of topics that I can help you with by *Googling* them for you", which is what two fresh new admin did.

DO NOT insist that teachers adhere to the practices of your 4th grade classroom when you are attempting to "coach" us in these new ideas that you don't particularly understand. We're all adults and most of us have master's degrees and we average 15-20 years of experience in our fields, some of us more than 40. You're not being cute. You're not being clever. You're being a pain in the ass.

DO NOT walk in and say "I'm the Math Coach" and proceed to tell us nothing new, even going so far as to use material from *my own website* in your presentation (true story).

I could continue but I've got to get back to work.



TL:dr;
Bring something to the table or GTFO.

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