Long Division, Factor Trees and Other Things that Help Us Grow by Rachel Perry

As it turns out, being a teacher involves a lot more learning than teaching. Today, I learned how to calculate the Greatest Common Factor and Least Common Multiple using factor trees, and I learned that my students are easily motivated by the promise of fruit snacks. Yesterday, I trained myself in solving division problems using long division (the “standard” way that we all probably learned) and a place value chart (the new-fangled way that someone invented just to confuse math teachers) simultaneously and well enough to perform in front of a group of ten-year-olds who literally keep track of my monthly mistakes.

No one I have ever known would have guessed I would end up teaching fifth and sixth grade math, least of all myself as a fifth grader. I never considered myself a “math person,” and I still don’t, but not because I don’t think I can do well with mathematical concepts. Teaching for the last year and a half has shown me that there’s no such thing as a “math person,” but there is a wide variety of skills that helps students be successful in math. Some students have a really strong sense of numbers. Others are self reflective and comfortable asking for help when they need it. Some students are missing knowledge of one important, fundamental concept, and once they grasp it, they fly.

Of all the things I learned today, the thing that will stick with me the most was the Director of Curriculum’s response when I told her that even my strongest math students struggled with my new curriculum. “Good!” she said, “That means they’re growing!” These concepts--the idea that anyone can be a “math person” and that challenges help students grow--can be summarized by the term “growth mindset” (an educational buzzword coined by researcher Carol Dweck).

Instilling growth mindsets in my students is difficult, but having a growth mindset about my own journey as a new teacher is even harder. Teaching is frustrating, and I have to constantly remind myself of the same mantra I repeat to my students: “mistakes help us learn.” Everyday, I’m humbled by this experience of learning, struggling and growing alongside my students, and I’m incredibly grateful for the support that my co-teachers, the other teaching fellows in my house and the entire Esperanza community give me.