Scott Lamie, Special Education and Algebra 1 Teacher, Tennessee High School, Bristol, Tennessee

The Impact of the ETSU Eastman Scholar Mathletes Program on my Classroom

As we stand near the edge of full Common Core implementation, many teachers have expressed concern over how dramatic the difference is between the classroom environments that “were” and the classroom environments that “will be.”  The stress level is palpable, and you can feel the undercurrents of uncertainty and, in some cases, fear in meeting rooms, hallways, and classrooms throughout the state.  As for me, I am certainly working to prepare myself for the change, but I do so with a sense that these lofty goals set forth by this new initiative are not, in most cases, unattainable. 

In fairness, some of this may have to do with the fact that I’ve spent my career working in special education (teaching math for six of them), which is a world only defined by change.  On the other hand, if not for my experience working with ETSU and the Eastman Scholars Mathletes program, I think that I would be extremely ill prepared for what is to be demanded of me if I am going to serve my student’s needs in the most meaningful ways.  It also seems that what started out as a two-week program has continued on, in spirit, well after the coffee dispenser was scrubbed out following the final day of training (at which point, I assume, it was semi-permanently installed in Dr. Nivens’s office). 

My time in the Mathletes program can be best described by looking at what it is, rather than what it was.  What it was was a two week program in which my colleagues and I were encouraged to “play” with mathematical concepts in hopes that we could remember what made us love math in the first place so that we could share it with our students.  Although many activities and ideas were presented to us that we could use in our classrooms as soon as the school year started, I’ve come to realize that the feelings unearthed in that room when we worked together to find a solution were the program’s true end product.  Those feelings of excitement, frustration, and, in many cases, achievement produced the greatest emotional incubator for student success that we can hope to provide in our classrooms.  The research behind recent shifts in educational focus and practice seem to point to this idea, but, through the Mathletes program, Eastman and ETSU have been promoting this idea to local educators for many years. 

Despite my fond memories of my two weeks with the Mathletes program, I still feel that the experience is best defined by what it is in my life today.  More accurately, I would say that I feel its influence in the social web that it has helped create, the stabilizing force that it provides to my instruction, and the near fearlessness that it inspires in my professional decisions.  As to the social aspect, Mathletes has allowed me to create a growing, professional network of local math teachers that I can go to for perspective, guidance, and, most importantly, understanding as I work my way through the ever changing educational landscape.  As an added bonus, Eastman and ETSU continues to do a commendable job of providing additional opportunities for teachers to connect and reconnect by hosting reunion meetings and refresher, follow-up, sustained training sessions.  In terms of stabilization, the core principles of the methodology presented in the program always help me find my center when I feel like educational opportunities are slipping away. 

There have been countless times when, in frustration, I forced myself to analyze my current instructional tactics in terms of how many ways that I was having my students present and interact with the concepts.  By doing so, I almost always identify some imbalance that is rectifiable in such a way that it allows me to quickly return to effective instruction.  This process has become invaluable to me as I hit pockets of stagnation throughout the year.  Finally, the most important way in which Mathletes affects my life is that it has instilled in me the idea that failure is temporary but mediocrity can be eternal.  Mathletes inspired me to immediately take chances in the classroom and to cede control of the discussion to the students.  At first, this was frightening due to the achievement discrepancies that exist between my students and their peers, but we all made it through with a minimum of damage. 

Over time, I have been able to shift my focus significantly away from talking and applying it to listening.  This has built a greater bond between my students and me because they know that I’m actually going to attempt to answer the question they ask and not just the one that I want them to ask.  Some students have never experienced this, and it can change your relationships when this behavior becomes the norm and not the exception.  As an added bonus, I’ve noticed that, as I have talked less, I have gained greater confidence in what I have to say.   This has freed me up to take even more chances to push the curriculum into new places and to even extend my experiences to students outside of our school.  In short, the Eastman Scholar Mathletes program and ETSU have provided the opportunity for me to experience feelings of excitement, frustration, and, in some cases, achievement, and these feelings have lasted much longer than the two weeks for which I was scheduled to train. 

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