This week's theme in the MTBoS Blogsplosion blogging initiative challenges us to reflect on the soft skills of teaching math. As a middle school teacher, this is something I think about often. What makes a great math teacher?
#1 I think is content knowledge. A great math teacher is first and foremost, a math learner themselves. Now, I know, strong content knowledge doesn't really fall under "soft skills", but they have to be willing to put themselves in the (sometimes uncomfortable and messy role) of learning. I think this is true of any good teacher really, but it is especially important for math teachers. Being a life-long learner, not being afraid or ashamed to ask questions, and wanting to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them (as the first Common Core math practice states) are all soft skills. A passion for learning is truly a beautiful thing.
A question I ask myself often is "how am I deepening my own content knowledge?" I've been teaching middle school math for ten years now. I have taken advanced math classes in high school, and college, and I have passed several math content teacher certification tests, including the Math Content Knowledge Praxis Exam last year in order to apply for a Master Teacher Fellowship at Math for America. I know what I need my students to know, but, I am sad to admit that rarely do I make the time to explore mathematics outside my classroom. Don't get me wrong, I love exploring things with my students. Ask any one of my current or former students, and I truly believe that they would say that I enjoy exploring math with them (which is another essential soft skill of a great math teacher, I believe), but rarely do I venture outside exploring something mathematical not related to my job. I'd like to say that this is because of lack of time and the demands of balancing work and life, but what it comes down to, is that sometimes it is just not a high enough priority of mine. And that is something I want to consciously change over the course of the next few months. I want to push my own mathematical thinking and learning. Great math teachers are always learning, not only in their craft, but in their own depth of content knowledge.
Some of the other soft skills that I think are essential to great math teaching, especially in middle school, are the ability to balance that fine line between teaching children and teaching young adults. My students are different people every single day, and that can be challenging. Middle school teachers have one of the highest teacher turnover rates, and almost every time I tell someone new that I teach middle school math, the response is usually one of pity (or insanity), but I genuinely love what I do, and I know that what I do is important. Teaching (and enjoying teaching) middle school math requires a very unique set of soft skills, including communication, again, balancing being able to talk about the (often) silly things that entertain teenagers that and then the beauty of linear or quadratic equations. We need to be mentally strong, and stable, because being a teenager is not. We need to be forgiving, but also not shy away from consequences. We need to be genuine listeners, because a middle schooler will do almost anything for you, if they realize that you do indeed care about them as individuals. And lastly, we need to be (appropriately) human in front of them, which means admitting when we don't know something, disappointed in them when they are not being their best selves, and their biggest cheerleader when they deserve it.
Teaching middle school math is hard. But man is it worth it ;)