Shame.

When I woke up this morning, I went right to Twitter to see if I could find video footage of the keynotes from the California Math Conference. I watched Fawn Nguyen and I  jotted down the things that made me think, “Yes! I want to do that!”.

Then, I watched Dan Meyer. He challenged me to turn a question into a story and put students at the center of it as the hero. I thought about that for a while. How do I draw a student into the narrative so she is the heroine – the owner of the learning? How do I give her the power?

Later in the day, I was exploring the geometry progression with a colleague.  We were playing with triangles and parallelograms in order to understand the first and second grade geometry standards better.  By accident, I created a small parallelogram and a large parallelogram.  I wondered if they were proportionate.  As we worked, I kept generating more questions about the situation. My favorite question was, is the area of  proportionate figures related to the scale factor?

I remembered Dan’s keynote. I wanted to make myself the hero of this story. I didn’t want someone to tell me the answer to this question. I wanted to figure it out.  My friend, who has taught high school math, was eager to help me make connections. I told her I wanted to “own” my understanding. I needed some think time. She respected  my wishes.

While we were exploring, another colleague approached me.

“How long have you have been a math coach?”

“5 years.”

“Oh. I noticed you were really excited about learning math. What is your background?”

“I taught K-8 in a one room school-house off the coast of Maine for 6 years. Then, I taught fourth grade for four 4 years.”

“Well I started as a 3-8 math coach, then a K-5, now I am K-12. We have a really small district and my role has kind of changed and evolved over the years. We also have math specialists in all the buildings, including one in the high school.”

“I only ask because sometimes it is hard for generalists to become math coaches because they don’t have the content background. You work with high school teachers?”

“Well…. yes. We work together. I ask them questions about HS standards.  Sometimes they ask me questions about the K-8 standards. My role is to be a conduit.”

My cheeks felt like they were getting red.  I wondered if other people were listening. I quickly started packing up my things. I wanted to hide all the pieces of scrap paper with my notes on them.

I nodded and smiled.  I said, “I just really enjoy learning math.”

Ouch. I tried not to feel it, but it seeped into me before I could stop it.

Shame.

I don’t even like typing that word. It is the worst feeling and to feel it about a subject that I have finally grown to trust again…… It just sucks.

I wanted to shake it off. I wanted to forget about it. This person doesn’t know anything about me. Later, I thought about all of the things I could have said to this person. I thought about all the qualifications that make me a good fit for my K-12 coaching position.  I almost started listing them here, but my qualifications aren’t what this story is about. This story is about how shame got in the way of me becoming the hero of my own math story.

If I wasn’t still feeling ashamed, I would probably describe my favorite question  in more detail. I would stay up until 2:00 am pouring over my notes from today, in an attempt to articulate my current understanding of how area is and isn’t related to the scale factor of proportionate figures.  I would share all the mistakes I had made. I would ask more questions. I would try to connect my thinking to all the standards.

I don’t really feel like doing any of that right now.  The shame has gotten in the way.

When I was grappling with my questions about proportionate parallelograms,  I felt empowered.

How did those words,

You work with high school teachers?”

take me from feeling empowered to feeling ashamed in a matter of seconds?

Was it because I felt vulnerable?  I thought vulnerability was a good thing.  When I am vulnerable, I am open, unassuming, ready to learn.  When I was exploring my favorite question with my colleague, my vulnerability pushed my thinking and fed my curiosity.   It allowed me to take a risk, to explore something that I wasn’t totally sure of.

Suddenly, when confronted with a question about who I work with, vulnerability was not so good. It meant I was weak.  I didn’t have the “right” experience.

It ignited shame.

I am not sure what I want to do with this experience.  I am not even sure why I am sharing it. I guess maybe I hope that if I acknowledge the shame, I will take away its power.   I can’t help but wonder, would this person have asked the same question to a high school teacher who told him that she was coaching elementary teachers?

I used to think that being vulnerable was my strength. It was at the heart of the relationships I have built over the last five years.  It was where I tried to start every day. It was what allowed me to feel so comfortable, and even excited, about saying,

“I don’t know.”

Now, I am not sure.

Unfortunately, vulnerability doesn’t have a switch.

Fortunately, I will learn from this. I will think about the teachers and student I work with.  I will continue to value and protect the space where being vulnerable can be empowering.  I will encounter more situations like the one I just described.

Maybe, after some time, I can get myself to a place where I can say,

“Yes. I work with High School Teachers. And they work with me.”

21 thoughts on “Shame.”

1. Ouch ….
WHat about a middle ground — what about appreciating where the interrogator was coming from … and appreciating where you come from … and using it to grow?

And then getting back to the otehr fun stuff you *want* to think about — the math 🙂

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1. I am pretty sure that is where I will end up. Getting it off my chest helps speed the process along a little bit.

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2. Connie Rivera says:

I am so glad you shared this. I feel vulnerable when people find out that I am not certified in the area in which I provide professional development and coach. I didn’t find out what math really was until I was already certified in two other subjects, and I am still learning. I coach plenty of teachers who are “better at math” than me. I have many qualifications, but there are still things that I hear (and shouldn’t listen to) that bring the same feeling of shame I felt when my teacher pointed out to the whole class that I was still figuring out multiplication facts on my fingers. Shame. Thank you for vulnerably sharing your feelings which help me not feel so alone in mine.

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1. I love the assertion “I didn’t find out what math really was until….”

Such a beautiful point: what math REALLY is is different from what we come to expect after years of schooling. I know that I personally learned so much about the personality, beauty, and openness of math after leaving my own classroom and heading to grad school. It makes me look back on a lot of my teaching experiences as “gee whiz, what a lame portrait of math i painted for those kids.” not exactly confidence-boosting for my current teacher ed students, so it isn’t something i share often.

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2. Thank you Connie. Shame is such a powerful feeling, but it did help me to “own” it and put it out there. It also helps to hear your story. Unfortunately, I think there were many of us that have felt feelings of shame as students. This experience was a reminder for me to be more mindful when working with students and adults. Shame and learning don’t mix well. Thanks again for sharing your story with me. I know it isn’t easy.

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3. I experience something similar quite regularly; the opposite, as a matter of fact. I taught high school math, but now I coach elementary school teachers (preservice mostly). And sometimes, they ask me, “so have YOU done this before?” And as the years pass and I get to work with more and more teachers in their classrooms, the vulnerability is starting to disappear as I say things like, “well, not my own. But I’ve gotten to do this very task with 3rd graders,” or, “I have a great friend I’ve worked with who used this task.” But that vulnerability, and shame, remains, and I still feel my cheeks get red when they ask me just how many years I spent teaching elementary school.

For me, what I’ve had to decide is, I use everything I DO know to work with others who are investigating and improving their own practice. No, I can’t point to state test scores from every single elementary grade that I’ve personally made jump through the roof by 18 standard deviations. No, I can’t back up, with firsthand experience, the claim that kindergartners CAN be reasoners and sensemakers every single day. No, I can’t always remember the volume formula for a cone, a sphere, or a pyramid – I mix those up. But I’m not sure that any of that stuff, if I had it, would make me a better teacher educator.

But I CAN say that the things I do know – how to support teachers to work on math together, collaboratively – how to support them to feel competent while also interrogating their own gaps in knowledge – how to help them identify and confront their own assumptions about what ‘kinds of’ kids can do rigorous math – these things I put to work every single day to support others learn. and that knowledge is useful for supporting teacher learning, regardless of whether they trump me in years of experience, in recall of formulas, etc.

How much math knowledge would it take to feel expert enough to be done? I don’t think that’s a fair question for anyone.

How do I use what I know to support others to learn? And how do I respond when I come to the edge of my own understanding?

I think those are fairer questions for teacher educators and coaches.

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1. Charlotte, thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with me. They re-affirm what I believe. It is always scary to be in that space where I question my own validity and experience. Somewhere, way down deep, under the shame, was the little voice who was telling me exactly what you just said. “How do I respond when I come to the edge of my understanding?” That is the question that prompted me to start this blog in the first place. Thank you so much for being a mirror for me. It is really about the learning, isn’t it? I think what makes this job simultaneously challenging and invigorating is that there are still so many gaps that I want to interrogate – so many assumptions that I can’t wait to confront. Thank you Charlotte.

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4. Thanks for sharing this storyline and making me realize I am not alone. I have been battling with this shame for some years. My lesson, ‘I want my vulnerability to empower me instead of bringing shame. I will do something about it!

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1. Thanks Grace. It was a beautiful thing to realize that vulnerability can be empowering. For the longest time, I thought of it as negative. Clearly, I still struggle with it, but I agree with you – it is something to strive for.

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5. Kelly Chandler-Olcott says:

And how do I make sure I’m learning and challenging myself enough to come to the edge of my understanding on at least a semi-regular basis (in other words, to make sure I’m not just playing it safe to ensure that I don’t “out” myself as something other than an Expert)?

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1. This is such a big deal! It’s extremely easy to feel discussions with teachers getting away from us and say, “ok ok let’s get back on track” where that ‘track’ is determined by our own level of comfort. to choose tasks, discussions, etc., based on their likelihood to drift back towards our own safe space, rather than taking risks that lead us out past the cliff (I’m imagining Wile E. Coyote here). In those moments, it’s just as important for us to trust the teachers we work with (be they in-service or pre-service) as it is for them to trust us.

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1. It is so true. It has taken me awhile to be comfortable saying, “I don’t know. Can I think about it and get back to you?” or to not say anything and just listen. I am a slow processor and a fast talker so, sometimes my words get ahead of my understanding. I have also found that, sometimes, my default position is “talking”. It is like I am subconsciously trying to create my own white noise.

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2. Yes!! I think I ask myself this on a regular basis. Sometimes, it is tough to discern whether I am playing it safe. I am learning to take more risks. Writing this blog was a big one.

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6. Sharon Dotger says:

Thank you for sharing this account with us. Your interest in exploring mathematics is what we want to encourage for all learners, both young and more seasoned. I’m thankful that you have a colleague who will “allow” you to explore and I hope that you can continue to find those in your work. We are all learners. “Expertise” is flimsy and only develops as we push our own boundaries, where ever they might be. I hope that you can find the support you deserve in person. If not, I hope you’ll continue to reach out in your blog. You’re doing excellent work.

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1. Thanks Sharon. I really appreciate your support and encouragement. I think it was an important step for me to actually write the blog – put my insecurities “out there” so I can’t hide behind them anymore. I am incredibly lucky to work with a group of HS teachers who have always treated me like a fellow learner and teacher. They value my opinions and my contributions to problem solving. It is a testament to them that I have always felt safe doing math with them. Because of their support, I have grown so much as a mathematician and an educator. Knowing I have strong relationships with them is what made it easier to dispose of the shame.

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7. I am one of those HS math teachers the blogger works with. Even though she is a ‘generalist’ this math coach rocks. She questions how we think, what we do and also asks the occasional high school content math question. She’s a great model for the students as well as the teachers. There’s no shame in learning. Keep on coaching and we’ll keep working with you!

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8. Robyn, you have had such a tremendous impact on my learning. I have the utmost respect for you because you have always been so respectful of me as a fellow mathematician. I have never once felt ashamed of or even insecure about my math, teaching, or coaching abilities around you. In fact, you are someone who I know I can always be vulnerable with. This experience has reminded to be grateful of and show appreciation for my wonderful HS colleagues. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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9. K-12 all subjects says:

Would they ask a secondary teacher who worked with elementary teachers the same Q? I am that secondary teacher and the answer is yes, they would. But mostly I ask it of myself. Furthermore I am working K-12 in all subject areas. Who am *I* to be helping K teachers with their reading program?

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10. I love this post. I think that everyone has been where you are. It really made me think of where students are and when they feel that same sense of shame unfortunately within a classroom. I have to figure out better ways to avoid that as I don’t want to shut my students down. Thank you for your honesty. This was an awesome post.

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1. Thanks Jackie! I thought about my students a lot when I was writing this post. I keep reminding myself that shame has no place in a classroom.

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