Since starting full-time work at Math Medic, Lindsey and Sarah have subbed a number of times for former colleagues and friends. When a family emergency required a colleague to take a leave of absence only days into the school year, we offered to help by covering the teacher’s classes for two weeks. Sarah taught her class of 9th grade Algebra 1 and Lindsey taught 2 sections of 9th grade Geometry. Being back in the classroom was both invigorating and challenging. We decided we wanted to reflect on some of our biggest takeaways.

## Building Relationships Isn’t a One-Size-Fits-All Endeavor (Sarah)

I started subbing about a month into the school year. The classroom teacher had started the year with the students and certainly worked hard to get to know the students. But then the kids had a slew of different substitute teachers coming and going on almost a daily basis. I wasn’t sure what that had done to the classroom culture and whether students actually even knew each other or not. Furthermore, I predicted students would be leery of yet another sub coming in, even one who said she was staying for a longer period of time. I was right. Sort of.

Lindsey and I decided we were going to have students make name tents. On the outside they got to decorate their name in whatever way they wanted to, and they answered a different question in each corner of the tent (favorite anything, someone who they care about, favorite hashtag, and dream job). On the inside, we had them make a table with a spot for Monday through Friday. Each day we asked them one question that they would respond to in writing. We would collect the name tents after class, write comments in response to each student and then use the name tents as a way to assign seats on the following days.

The name tents helped, but I still didn’t feel like I was connecting with everyone. For some students it took one-on-one conversations where I affirmed their mathematical thinking and reasoning. For one student, it was letting them have an extra day to turn in their homework. For another, it was telling them a personal story of a time I had been in a similar situation as them. By the end of the first week, I felt like I had made progress but I still didn’t have everyone. And I had to tell myself that was okay. We would keep working together the following week and I would keep trying to come up with creative ways to build trust and rapport with that student. **Although it would be nice if there was a silver bullet to winning trust quickly, it simply doesn’t exist. Trust takes time. For students who are guarded or have had to deal with their own trauma, it can take even longer. What I learned is that individual students will require individualized approaches. While there are some tried-and-true approaches, building relationships is more of an art than a science.**

## Building classroom culture and norms takes time and intentionality. (Lindsey)

As Sarah said, developing trust takes time, and there is no substitute for getting to know students. Beyond that, my goal for the two-week period was that I wanted to help build a classroom culture where the students knew each other and knew how to work together. After all, while I wouldn’t be with them all semester, their classmates would be. The better I could teach them how to work together and how to help each other, the more successful they would be later. I didn’t have a lot of time so I knew I had to be really intentional.

Starting on the first day, we incorporated non-curricular tasks (like **this Lots of Dots activity**) to teach group norms. In addition to these larger tasks, we also incorporated daily practices and structures to get students communicating. Below are some examples of quick ways you can get students talking and working together:

Family Feud - We started everyday with our favorite

**mini-game**, Family Feud! Each day at the start of class we would ask groups to work together for 1 minute to answer a Family Feud question. This got students talking and working together within the first few minutes of class which made working together during the lesson much easier.Read, Discuss, Write - Whenever groups were working together on an activity, we used the read, discuss, write protocol which is when each group has a designated reader who reads each question, the group discusses what they think, and then everyone writes. This may seem elementary, but it works really well for students who are new to working together. Students like knowing who is responsible for each role and they find the structure comforting.

Transparency about the lesson design - Since the students had been with substitute teachers for most of the year, they had not seen any Experience First, Formalize Later lessons before. On the first day I taught one, I took extra time to explain how the lessons worked,

**why the lesson structure would help them learn better**, and what roles the students had to play in order for them to be successful. By clearly calling out that every day they would be working through the activity BEFORE we did any note-taking or practice, I was able to explain to them that they would be the ones working together to solve the problems. They wouldn’t come in knowing exactly how to solve each problem, but they would be able to figure it out together as a group.**When students understood that they were expected to struggle, they had the freedom to try different approaches and methods together. I find that the more transparent I am about how I teach the way I do, the quicker students are to get on-board.**

Now even with all this focus on culture building and group norms, not every day was perfect. There was plenty of classroom management going on, conversations had with students after class, and some groups that had difficulty working together. **But each day was a little better than the last.** And by the end of the two weeks, I’m happy to report that students had a **strong set of skills of working collaboratively** and problem solving. Building a culture focused on problem-solving and collaboration is hard, but you and your students can do it (even in just a few weeks)!

## Insist on Alternate Explanations (Sarah)

The first day of subbing in the 9th grade Algebra 1 class was, if I’m being honest, a rude awakening. The activity I had planned kind of fell apart and it was difficult for them to follow my directions for completing a certain task. It was very loud and there was a lot of yelling across the room. Groups of 4 became loose groups of 7, leaving some students alone at a table. Everybody seemed to be doing what they wanted. Wasn’t an engaging lesson plan the best classroom management?!

When I left that day I was a bit discouraged. But I knew I had a choice to make. I could chalk everything up to “kids these days” or the fact that this was a group of mostly below-grade-level students who “just didn’t care”. That would have been easy to do. But it’s not actually what I believe. I believe that all students can learn. So I had to look for alternate explanations. I had to insist on them.

I started to put myself in their shoes. Tenth adult of the year is standing in front of them. They are just transitioning to high school. Instead of being willfully opposed to my expectations, was it possible that they *just didn’t know what was expected*? I found out later that they had been using an online video-based math program while the various subs floated through. What a jolt to start working in groups on math tasks that required strategic reasoning and discussion with other students! The next day when we started our first EFFL lesson, I took extra time to paint a clear picture of what the group work portion would look like. A couple days later, I tried chunking the activity into two parts, so the group work was broken up by an intermittent debrief with the first set of margin notes before launching them to continue on the task. I made sure to **explicitly point out things students were doing that were mathematical** and that were conducive to working on a team. And there were many! Rather than focusing on students who were “listening quietly” or “paying attention”, I pointed out when a student was willing to share an incomplete idea and open it up to the rest of the class. A girl in the corner had such a good explanation of her strategy in a way that succinctly reflected the main point of the lesson, that I had two students paraphrase her response.

It did not become my magic-wand, ideal classroom environment overnight, nor did I get there after two weeks. But students who I had the hardest time getting on-task during the class, reflected in their name-tent that their favorite part of math class this week was “actually learning” and “feeling like I understand.” “I really liked the **KFC activity**.” I was ecstatic.

**Assuming that students, or certain students, don’t want to or can’t learn is probably one of the greatest disservices we can do for our students. When things aren’t working the way you would like them to, ask why. But be careful with gut reactions. They might not always point you to the truth. And choosing to believe the best about our students, even when it seems unwarranted, is perhaps the most important thing we can do to ensure an equitable classroom.**

## Teaching is hard. (Lindsey)

My first few days back, I could not believe how exhausted I was every day after teaching just two hours! Seriously, I felt so mentally drained. I kept thinking, “How did I do this full time?" When I finished subbing each day, I would try to work on Math Medic things in the afternoon, and I had zero mental capacity left. I had made a million decisions while teaching and my brain said, “No more. Me done.”

Sarah had this same feeling, and she said to me one day, “I wish I had given myself more grace when I was teaching full-time. I always felt like I wasn’t good enough, or there was more that I should be doing. But I can see now that it was just that teaching is really, really, hard.”

I tell you this in hopes that you will give yourself grace when you need it. In my experience, teachers are often hard on themselves, always wishing they had more to give. But as my principal told me in my first year of teaching, “Even if you worked 24 hours a day, there would still be more to do. You’ve got to let some things go and know that you are doing your best.” So as we come up on a holiday break this week, we hope that you can take a moment to be proud of yourself. You have a very challenging job, and you’re crushing it!

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