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Diary of a Busy Teacher: The Reality of Teaching Math

In this week's installment of "Diary of a Busy Teacher", Lisa shares what it's really like teaching math to fourth graders. From the expectations to lessons learned, Lisa helps bring some humor and insight from her classroom.

teaching math

Hello, and welcome back to Diary of a Busy Teacher! If you tuned in last week, you saw the expectations teachers have of morning routines in the classroom, and how vastly different reality can from our expectations as teachers during those precious first minutes starting the day. Today, we turn our attention to math, which is my first subject taught each day. Admittedly, math is my favorite subject to teach, so it’s not quite as wild a ride as reading or writing, but read on to take a look at just how complicated math can be!

A teacher's expectations

The kids come into our classrooms with knowledge obtained from previous years of schooling. If we’re teaching multiplication, the kids have already memorized their basic multiplication facts through twelve. If we’re teaching the addition and subtraction algorithms, the kids have those addition and subtraction facts through twenty down pat. If we’re doing something brand new, the class is rapt with attention, eager to drink in all of that new knowledge. What an easy lesson, right?

Once we’ve given the kids an opportunity to explore a problem within table groups or partnerships, many students volunteer to share their work at the board and the class responds with questions and comments. Direct instruction follows, as kids practice work on whiteboards or papers, and then they go off to try some work independently. Repeat the following day.

The reality of the situation

“Ms. Koplik, are we going to do things this year like 8 x 4???”

It took all I had to respond calmly, patiently, and completely seriously, “Well, honey, in third grade you took a lot of time to memorize the times tables from one to ten, so we’re moving a bit beyond that this year.”

When we hope that kids will come to the table with prior knowledge, we’ve got to push those hopes down under the table, because they often do not, will not, and will never memorize things that would make their's and our life easier. Now, I don’t believe that memorization is the best tactic for most things math, but I have yet to figure out a better solution for math facts.

On to the whole “working together” part of math. Last week, I had a kid literally scream in another kid’s face because they had different answers for the same math problem. There was no, “How did you solve it?” or “Here, let me show you what I did!” Literal. Screaming. I stood frozen and horrified as I tried to think of how to begin a conversation with both students. I had to pull the entire class to the rug for a group discussion about appropriate actions and behaviors when working with a partner or a group. Those two kids just glared at me the entire conversation, which took up ten minutes of my 50-minute math block.

Then, after partner work, when kids share… nobody cares. Well, maybe like two kids care. The kids that are sharing are thrilled to be up at the board, imparting their knowledge on the class, and man, the rest of the class could not care any less. Bribery ensues with my ticketing system when kids raise their hands to contribute questions or comments, and then I can get SOME participation.

Off to independent work? I’d say a solid 90 percent of the class in fourth grade can handle independent work, and then you’ve got those few kiddos who play avoidance games like it’s their mission in life. Taking five minutes to get their materials out. Then, a bathroom trip for ten minutes. How about moving spots in the room four times? Who even knows where the time goes?! Thankfully, the kids who love to avoid getting started on their work are often the kids I need in my small reteaching group, so they’re under my watchful eye and right next to me during that independent work time.

Overall, despite the challenges here and there, I actually find math to be one of the more manageable parts of my day. You’ll see what I mean next week when I start to talk about reading...

What this week's lesson taught me

Try to create a sense of community, accountability, and responsibility during math by allowing for student-led discussions. Keep your sneaky avoiders close by, and always, always offer manipulatives, whiteboards, charts, and tools to help your kids!

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Author Bio:

Lisa Koplik is a fourth-grade teacher at the Greenwood School in Wakefield, Massachusetts. She loves teaching math, reading intense read-aloud books that promote complaints when she has to stop reading, and figuring out educational games to play with her students. Check out her video series on classroom management!

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Want more from this author? Check out Lisa's advice on classroom seating or creating meaningful classroom rules with your students.

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