There’s no crying in Algebra

The single worst day of my teaching career?

It was four years ago this Friday.1

Valentine’s day weekend.

The last day of the 4th six weeks.

The day of the rational functions test in Pre-AP Algebra II.

. . .

Here’s a near-absolute truth about any math class on Earth:

The 4th six weeks is the hardest.

I estimate that some of it has to do with the fact that it immediately follows Winter Break2 and that it takes kids — like adults — some time for their brain functions to defrost.

But of all the math classes that I have taught3 the January-through-mid-February stretch of Algebra II was the toughest.4

2009-20105 was my third year of teaching Pre-AP Algebra II6 and great efforts were made each successive year to refine the course to perfection. But the end of the 4th six weeks that year was one of those “we’re trying to squeeze more juice out of the orange and there’s no more juice to be squeezed out” moments.

Here’s the short version: I can’t deal with crying students. 7

That afternoon, a parade of my Pre-AP Algebra II students came by after school to see their tests,8 and no fewer than 3 of them break down in tears on the spot.9

For any prospective teachers out there: That is NOT the way you want to go home on a Friday afternoon.

. . .

I still to this day remember distinctly when one of the kids saw the 50-something on her paper,10 looked up at me in tears11 and managed to stammer,

That’s IT. I give up. I can’t do this anymore.

And then she walked out. 12

Then I looked to my left and right, and there were yet two other kids that were crying. One of them had to leave for the ladies’ room to compose herself, then came back to look over her exam. 13

I realized then that sometimes, more than anything, our students really just want to hear us tell them that they’re doing things right.

As adults, when the cracks start to show, teachers sometimes have responsibilities that go outside of simply being instructors of the academics.

Sometimes I’m surprised by the degree to which some of these kids are afraid to disappoint us.14 For any figure of authority, the art of being able to strike the right balance between pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough is an impossibly difficult tightrope act. I don’t know how parents manage it. 15

. . .

After a tumultuous three-week stretch peppered with ice days (sans any real ice), AP Stat finally makes the transition from proportions to means this next week. There are only two more major exams this year. That kinda blows my mind to think that things have flown by so quickly.

On the horizon: Chocolate chips per cookie and flying frogs.

  1. which in 2010, was February 12. []
  2. combined with the fact that January is when the toughest material of any math course comes to bear []
  3. to date: Algebra I, Geometry, Regular Algebra II Pre-AP Algebra II, Precal, Stat, and AP Stat []
  4. The on-level course used to include the rational root theorem and the hellish innards of higher-order polynomial functions, while the Pre-AP flavor encompassed logarithms and rational functions — which included slant and parabolic asymptotes that year. []
  5. or “season 3”, as I like to refer to it []
  6. it was also my last []
  7. Funny story? The very first time I had to deal with a crying kid was my 2nd year of — again — Pre-AP Algebra II. Kid came in with her mom to see her first test of the year, and she immediately broke down sobbing and weeping. I actually tried explaining domain and range to her while she was choking on her tears, it was REALLY awkward. That moment scarred me. Scarred me for years. Well a year or so later, I ran into that same student and brought that up, and she said to me, “Oh yeah. I only cried so that I wouldn’t get in trouble with my mom.” -_- []
  8. which, to be honest, was maybe a bit more difficult than was intended. We actually posted a note about a re-test on home access for the following Monday morning before school, and I personally had about 25 of my students show up for it []
  9. and maybe another one or two that suddenly ran out of the room as quickly as possible to cry outside []
  10. which caused her to fail the six weeks []
  11. and for context, this was not a kid that I would classify as remotely overly-emotional []
  12. She came back on Monday morning after meeting with her tutor, and passed the re-test. Which I’m thankful for because at that moment on Friday, *I* almost wanted to cry. It was bad. []
  13. Apparently she called her mother to vent/cry, and two years later at open house, her mother shared with me about that conversation… I won’t go into all of the details but it was a heart-warming moment. []
  14. On the flip-side, we also have students that act like they couldn’t give a flip WHO they disappoint. Sigh. []
  15. A part of me hates that that was the last time I got to teach Pre-AP Algebra II. But I did get another year with many of those students in Precal the next year, and again in AP Stat the year after that []