How to eat an elephant


Before I began my internship, I thought that the experience would provide me with answers… fortunately or unfortunately, as I near the end, I find that I am left with even more questions than when I started. How do you cultivate an environment where mathematical risk-taking – and making mistakes – is encouraged and valued? What is the value of homework? What constitutes a truly rich task? What is the difference between a 78% and a 79%? Random or mixed-ability groups? How long can I continue to function without coffee and a full night’s sleep?

Among all of these questions, however, one worries me most, and gnaws at me on a daily basis. Namely: how do I reconcile all of the ideas I have about what quality mathematics teaching should look like with what my teaching will actually look like for the next few years, given a lack of experience, time, resources, and potentially a school culture with views very different from my own? To be frank, the question I’m really asking myself is: How can I live with myself when what I do doesn’t always align with what I believe?

Most people will tell me that I should eat the elephant one bite at a time: make small week-to-week, month-to-month, or even year-to-year changes that – if I extrapolate the data – will eventually lead me to where I want to be. But in this case, won’t I constantly feel as if I’m shortchanging my students? If only they could wait a few years to get the quality of education they all deserve…

Alex Overwijk, on the other hand, told us in a memorable session at SUM 2015 to forget conventional wisdom and small changes, and instead to simply take the leap, for “If not you, who? If not now, when?” (In other words, “Just go for it, bro!”) But even then, what if I’m not Alex Overwijk, Sadie Estrella, Nat Banting, or Christopher Danielson? These incredibly passionate, endlessly inspiring educators all seem to have a certain je ne sais quoi that translates into successful teaching and deep learning. Do I have what it takes? (Exactly what it is, I’m still trying to figure out.)

This is a question I know I’ll be wrestling with until I open the door to my own classroom, and likely for a long time afterwards, too.

And yet, as painful as it can be, I’ve learned that this kind of self-reflection is part of the job description of being a teacher: if I could take away only one thing from my internship, it would be the notion that the important thing is to not stop questioning. Apply to any context you wish.

One Reply to “How to eat an elephant”

  1. You may find that what you feel are ‘baby steps’ snowball into big changes if you are curious and reflective.
    I like to think in baby steps because people who think in big changes are susceptible to thinking the job is done.


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