Students sit in my classroom for less than an hour a day (we have very short periods at my school). In that hour we go through some math problems, the students ask some questions, maybe we have a quiz or an exit slip, and the students leave to spend the majority of their day elsewhere. For the most part, I only see those students for that hour and that hour alone. Furthermore, the students I see are rarely an accurate descriptor as the people who are enrolled in my class. After all, I’m looking at my students through a mathematics lens; I see my students in a way that (probably) no other person sees them – and for good reason.
But every once in a while, when I have the opportunity to see my students involved in various extracurricular activities; I get a rare glimpse of my students outside of this math world. In these instances I find that I bare witness to just how little of an impact I have on their day to day life. Regardless of whether or not my students experience success in math, they are all involved and successful in their own areas of expertise. It is something we as teachers all know to be true (and even rely on regularly), but nonetheless it never ceases to surprise me when I am confronted with the image of my students as more than just mathematical thinkers. In these moments I am reminded of how short an hour of math really is.
And then there’s the other times. The moments when students come to me after school in tears because, even though they are trying every day, they feel like they just aren’t getting it. There are the students with the voice in their head telling them they are an idiot because they don’t understand numbers (and no matter what I say, I can’t seem to convince them otherwise). There are the students for whom their biggest source of anxiety is the feeling of stepping into a math classroom, and the idea of sitting one on one with their math teacher is mortifying. In these moments when I am sitting down, dishing out tissues, I am reminded of how long an hour of math really can be.
And there’s the third type of students; the students who come into class, do math, and leave, without me ever knowing if my class is an hour of joy, an hour of indifference, or an hour of torture. When a kid gets an A on a test does it make them happy? When a kid gets an F does it affect them outside of the math classroom? When I send home a bad report card, or call parents, what happens next. I find that I rarely know the day to day impact (and much less, the long term impact) I have on the majority of my students. For the most part, all I get to see is my students through the distorted lens of mathematics. And I find that this feeling scares me.