I can still remember planning a math lesson after school during my second year teaching. I turned to look out the window, hoping to get a view of the autumn afternoon. Instead I was met by my reflection. It was pitch black outside and there I was, sitting at a table under fluorescent light. How long had I been sitting there?
I was stuck. That week we were working on the properties of multiplication. While some students were understanding the topic right away (and probably would have without my help) the others were all over the map. Since I mostly had a surface understanding of the topic myself, I did not know where to start. It was paralyzing. On top of that, the last few lessons had not gone all that well. I had followed the textbook, but couldn’t follow my students’ thinking or misconceptions very well. Now, in front of me, were all the possible directions to take the lesson, many practice worksheets to choose from, and a worry that my students would still be mostly confused by the end of the lesson. How would they even be able to approach the end of the chapter test?
This wasn’t the only time I’d gotten stuck like this and wouldn’t be the last. On these evenings I’d wonder, How could my colleagues be at home? What magic did these other teachers have teaching math?
Over the years I learned some strategies from colleagues, professional books and blogs, workshops, and just trying things out as a math learner myself. Here are three strategies that built my confidence and helped me focus on what matters. I’m hoping they may help you too.
I do the work my students will do.
Taking the journey I will ask my students to embark on is not only helpful, it can be really enjoyable. It gives me a sense of what thinking students might do, what students might say, and therefore, what small group instruction I might offer during the lesson. Doing the work myself ends up making preparing for a lesson much easier.
This practice helps me feel more prepared because I gain a perspective of the student experience. It’s very different than imagining how a problem might go, instead I can create a clear view of the process by reflecting on my thinking as I go. Being metacognitive can highlight specific strategies I will offer in the lesson.
I may even use the tools and materials students will use. This creates an opportunity to create a math notebook entry to share as well. Students have a chance to see my process as a mathematician, engaged in the same practice as they are.
Navigating the work in this way also offers me an opportunity to understand the nuances of a topic. I remember trying this strategy as I prepared to teach two-digit addition to my second grade class. It was a topic I figured was fairly straightforward so I never bothered to go through the process. Yet doing the problems myself brought me an entirely new level of understanding. Try it, no matter how simple you think the topic might be.
I think in terms of “priority” rather than “time.”
Great teachers are master prioritizers. Their awareness allows them to be intentional and efficient. They have the wide view of what matters and they conserve their energy by focusing on those things. Instead of gazing at themselves in the late night window of their classroom like I was used to doing, these teachers could look at their reflection in the mirror as they prepare for bed.
One mentor of mine shared with me how she prioritized certain themes, concepts, and even text chapters; embedding them in small ways on a regular basis. She worked with the pacing guide, rather than “under” it. She knew that while math can be broken into topics (like algebra), she could see where there was overlap, and to her, that overlap was where it was most worth spending time.
Because she had been doing the work her students were doing for years she could keep her focus on the lesson in the moment. She also knew the math inside and out which helped her keep her mind on the content as a whole. She knew what was worth revisiting over and over.
The following chart shows one of the ways I learned to prioritize. By thinking across the year’s math concepts in topics I chose what I wanted my students to revisit again and again. The first column lists some main math concepts that span the elementary math grades. I realized that these concepts repeat year after year and allow students to go into more depth. The second column lists the priorities within each of the concepts I want to make sure my students and I get lots of practice with.