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Thirty years at CV without graduating

  • Greg Morris Courtesy photo—


Monday, January 09, 2017 7:2PM

I was in my early twenties when I began what I think of as my freshman years at ConVal High School as a math teacher. I recall my first day when a colleague escorted me to see the principal after I used the teachers’ lavatory. The principal assured the veteran teacher that although I looked very young, I was a new teacher and permitted to use all of our facilities. My students were eager to learn but spent much of their time trying to figure out my style of teaching. Being hired under an alternative certification plan, I had no experience in a classroom and decided to teach in the same manner in which I was taught. It worked for me, so why wouldn’t it work for them?

Over the next few years, I stumbled through new courses and made my share of mistakes as I found that there was more than one way to teach. I began to let go of the notion that “one size fits all” and listened to my students, who were willing to share their opinions on what worked for them. What I discovered was that even if I didn’t utilize all of their suggestions to make me a better teacher, it was the dialogue and the relationships I was forming with my students that had the greatest impact on their learning. The students were becoming more active in their own education and began pushing me to think outside of and beyond my own educational experiences. I was ready to become a sophomore.

My sophomore years took me from my mid-twenties through my thirties. I began teaching upper-level courses, including AP Calculus. Students who had a passion for mathematics wanted more than algorithms; they were asking for connections to real life and wanted more of a challenge. A colleague, Ken Pierce, started a math team, and I created a new course to address the needs of a few students. While I assisted Ken with the team, my real focus was on my new double AP course that integrated calculus and physics into a yearlong class. I was finally using my degrees in physics and my love of math to fully engage students. After tweaking this new course over several years, another revelation occurred: I could inject a heavy dose of physics into all of the math courses I taught. Students would learn math more deeply if they made connections to the world around them. I had built a solid teaching foundation but still felt that I wasn’t reaching enough students. With 12 years of experience behind me it was time to become an upper classman.

My junior years were highlighted with increased interest in taking on a bigger role at ConVal. I volunteered to be on a math curriculum renewal team that eventually shifted our traditional math education to an integrated approach. In theory, students would experience three years of mathematics without the typical labels of Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. Rather, the content was woven together and taught in a spiraling fashion with applications being a focus at the end of each unit. Unfortunately, with the text series we chose and the lack of training our teachers received, it was not successful, and we reverted to the traditional model. Our math team won several state championships during my junior years, but I still felt that we were not reaching all of our students.

Research coming out of Plymouth State College indicated that a student population was in need of successful math experiences to prepare for college or the workforce. I volunteered to be on a committee to investigate possible solutions. Ultimately, the committee turned into a funded organization known as the Mathematics Learning Community (MLC) project. We developed a two-tiered solution of math courses: Senior Math and Topics in Applied College Mathematics. It began at ConVal and has grown to be offered at 40 other New Hampshire high schools. Each summer I take part in offering professional development to teachers across the state. I feel fortunate that I’m able to share what my school and students have taught me over my many years at ConVal: Build strong trusting relationships with your students, engage them with stories, listen deeply, and connect your content to other disciplines or their lives whenever possible. My junior years gave me access to more students around the state through networking with fellow teachers, but I still wanted to do more for ConVal. I needed to grow and take on the role of a department head.

My senior years began when I became the math department head seven years ago. Kimberly Saunders was the assistant superintendent and through her guidance and vision, the math department shifted its focus toward a standards-based curriculum that would benefit all students. Ms. Saunders, the SAU, and the School Board provided an infusion of technology to support our math teachers and enrich the education of all of our students. Every math teacher now has an interactive white board, a document camera, a set of state-of-the-art networkable graphing calculators, and access to a set of touch screen laptops for student use. Every math course taught at ConVal has a team of dedicated teachers working hard to provide the best experience for every student.

When Brian Pickering arrived as principal in 2010, the math department received another boost. Brian believed in a distributed leadership model where many hands make light work. He sent a host of us to conferences that planted the seeds of collaboration and shared visions. As part of the school’s vision, I currently teach two courses and spend an additional block of time supporting our math teachers. We meet regularly in teams of shared courses to provide our students with a more consistent and common experience. These teams create common assessments and design activities that engage young minds. Brian also worked hard in bringing our community together to develop a set of skills that all students need to be productive citizens. Skills such as problem solving, collaboration, and self-management are as important as the content we all deliver. The math department is also using thematic competencies to better identify where students are being successful and where they need assistance.

I am very proud of ConVal and particularly our math teachers. Former graduates frequently return with success stories from their college math experiences. There is always room for improvement, of course, and our school district is entering another math curriculum renewal cycle. We are ready to research and listen to the community so that we may move forward with what is best for students.

Now in my early fifties, as a member of the team looking at K-12 mathematics education, I hope that we can provide a structure to ensure even greater success for all of our students. We can achieve this by streamlining our curriculum and offering targeted professional development for our math teachers. With strong leadership and an active community, we can provide the foundation that all of our graduates will need for future success.

 

Greg Morris is a math teacher and department head at ConVal High School.