When I got my first teaching job it was teaching 5th grade, all subjects. Although, I had initially been terrified of the 5th graders in my student teaching, once I realized how interesting, smart, and mature (comparatively to the little ones who cannot tie their own shoes) they were, I felt like I had hit the jackpot. As a result, I was pretty confident that I would never teach kids that were younger.
I taught my first three years with a principal whom I adored, after she left and before my 4th year, someone very different replaced her. It was a difficult transition as Karmin and I were in the middle of a large research project with our previous principal and Washington State University, looking at how English Language Learners (ELL) learned math. We had just presented and published a math education research paper in Prague and were continuing on with the professors on another endeavor. This new principal took note of how much I loved teaching math, as well as having the gifted and talented (GT) cluster in my classroom. Additionally, I had just become the building GT leader and I think she saw that I might have had my eyes on what was next.
To this end, somewhere in the late fall, she told me that I needed to start considering teaching a much younger grade the next year. She said that if I wanted to be a building math coach or do more work with GT in other schools, I needed to have the experience teaching other grades, especially something different from the 5th graders.
I vividly remember going out to dinner that night with my then fiancé (now husband) and his mom, who was visiting from out of town. I dominated the conversation about how absurd this idea was. I likened it to a pediatrician all of a sudden having to take geriatric patients. It seemed like another profession entirely, and I wanted nothing of it. I had grown so used to the more “sophisticated” concepts that my 5th graders were learning, and didn’t want to go teach the “basic” or “simple” concepts that the younger students were learning.
To make a long story short here, I ended up leaving that school at the end of that year to go to my district’s brand new GT K-8 school. At this school, I would go on to teach 4th grade math for one year and then 6th grade math for two years. I left teaching after 7 years to start Mathletes & Bookworms and have since worked with children from age 4 to 14.
Now that I have 13 years of teaching and tutoring behind me, I can say, without a doubt, that I would not be the strong math teacher that I am without having the breadth and experience of teaching and tutoring kids from Pre-K through 9th grade Honors Geometry. I see so many places where math teachers fall short because they cannot see how everything is linked. When I am doing combinations to 10 with a very young child (for example, 3+7, 5+5, etc.) on Ten Frames, I am able to see where that child needs to be in pre-algebra, algebra, geometry. Likewise, when I am working with a struggling student in pre-algebra I can see what gaps need to be filled quickly and it usually goes back to early number sense. Working with all of the different ages in math has completely revolutionized how I see and think about math.
Unfortunately, math education has a couple of areas in which it needs major improvement. First, it is imperative that all teachers, from K-12, have strong math understandings. I’ve met a lot of teachers in the K-2 grades who have decided to teach those ages because they are “afraid” of 4th and 5th grade math. This really concerns me because those teachers need to prepare the students for what is coming. I am not saying that elementary math teachers need to know calculus (heck, I would need a very long refresher myself!) but it is essential for teachers to see the next steps their students will need to take. Additionally, it should be mandatory that teachers change grade levels every few years. Not only does it give one a much greater perspective (of all subjects, not just math), but could prevent some of the burnout that exists when doing the same thing, every year. Change is where true growth and new understandings are found.
So if I could find that principal who told me in 2007 that changing grade levels would be the best thing for me as a teacher, I would tell her that she’s right. That while I used to be a good math teacher, now I think I am a great one, and that is solely due to my work with so many ages.
Image from: http://homeliving.blogspot.com/2015/01/back-to-my-little-corner-of-world.html