Do These Two Things

Here’s a bold claim that I can make here and now: I have made more teaching mistakes than any other teacher I know. I have the years to back me up.

You’ve asked your students to work out of the textbook for an entire period? I’ve done that more than once. You’ve snapped at a kid and made him cry? I’ve done that. Or you’ve cried in front of the class because you’re so fed up with their ungrateful and spoiled behaviors? I’ve done that. You’ve doled out a factory-made test without checking through all the questions on it? I’ve done that. You’ve brought ungraded papers home and shredded them? I’ve done that. (Although this may not be a mistake at all; we know crappy assignments must be burned.)

You’ve punished the whole class for something one or two kids had done? I’ve done that.

You’ve denied your kids’ opportunities to think deeply because you gave them all the answers? I’ve done that. You’ve given them timed tests? I’ve done that. Worse, you’ve given them timed tests preceded by this lie: just relax and do your best. I’ve done that. You’ve shown a video without previewing it? I’ve done that. You’ve made a promise that you couldn’t keep? I’ve done that.

This list drones on and it’s already exasperatingly dull.

If I may shift my attention then to the two main things that I’ve learned to do over the years so that when I do make my mistakes, the kids are incredibly quick to forgive me. Just two things.

Teachers are not in it to climb some corporate ladder to reach the thick-carpet land. The ladders we know are the ones we climb on to proudly hang our students’ work in our classroom. Or we scaffold a lesson to get students to play around on that ladder of abstraction. We are here to learn right along with the kids. Teachers are hypersensitive to that metacognition thingumabob.

Maybe it was during my second year of teaching when a veteran teacher dropped in to give us new teachers a short presentation about what to do and what not do as a teacher. He told us to not talk about ourselves to our students, that the kids are not interested.

I disagree. I think you should tell stories.


Do talk to your students about yourself. We are adults, they are children, we are teachers, they are our students, so of course the topics have to be appropriate. But it’s disingenuous and selfish to say that we want to know more about our students yet not reciprocate in this endeavor. How else may we create that magical “rapport” that everyone talks about?

I tell sporadic stories about what’s going on in my life — past, present, future — dispersed between solving equations and talking about math. These are not planned conversations, they just come out naturally and haphazardly. These light moments came up within last week.

We were playing Nim in class and discussing how many chips to remove on one’s turn. This made me remember when someone at a department store was trying on a shoe of mine that I’d removed in order to try another shoe myself. I guess it looked new enough that she thought it belonged to the store and wanted to ask the salesman how much it was until I told her it was my shoe! Give me back my shoe, lady! (Two kids couldn’t stop laughing about this.)

I told them briefly about my trip to D.C. and the soft sheets in the hotel room. I told them about my visit to the Holocaust Museum. One student asked, “Did you cry?” Another student replied before I could, “She cried when we did bad on a test, so what do you think?” We eased right back into simplifying the next rational expression.

I was hungry and told them about the so-so enchiladas I’d made for dinner the night before. The kids shared their preference or indifference about red and green enchilada sauce. Quickly the conversation was centered around “mystery meat” coming from our school cafeteria. We agreed that our favorite school lunch is the teriyaki chicken. Then we were all quiet again thinking if these two triangles shared a height or base and what the ratio of their areas might be.


Tell them about things you’re not good at. To balance out my heard-all-too-often outbursts of I’m brilliant!, I tell kids about the many things I cannot do. I tend to tell the class this when I sense they are struggling with a math concept. And when I’m no good at something that they are really good at, I shower them with genuine admiration.

I can’t tread water. I think I can swim. But that’s just it. I have to constantly swim or I’ll drown. I can’t do the eggbeater routine with my legs. My teacher took me to the deep end and said, “It’s really easy. Just watch me…” Ten minutes later, she said, “You’re right. You can’t tread water. Oh, look, our time is up.” I tell this story knowing that the kid who’s struggling with what we’re doing right now is on a swim team. He says, “I’ll teach you. I’m a good teacher.”

Once I skied straight into a big pole while taking ski lessons. I know I’m not supposed to look at the pole because looking at it turns it into a giant magnet and me into an iron rod. I didn’t give up though. Not after I saw a guy take a giant tumble and had taken forever to get up. I was way cooler when I fell.

I bring in a math problem that I cannot solve. Then I share a different one on another day.

I can’t sing. My husband, bless his heart, showers me with affection and compliments ad nauseam. But even he can’t lie about my tone deafness. What I’m about to reveal next has only been known to a handful of people outside my family. Here goes: I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, standing on a small platform at the front of the class with another classmate, we have a song to sing together. I remembered how cute I must have looked because I wore a pretty dress. We did not get far into the song when my duet partner turned… and…(are you ready for this?)… slapped me in the face! She fucking slapped me. I was that bad.

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  1. Posted July 18, 2014 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    Why does the idea of some girl slapping you seem so funny to me? I have a feeling that that moment helped define who you are. Plus, I wouldn’t be surprised if you tracked her down, went to her house, knocked on her door, and slapped her back.

    Second, you know as well as I do…there are two positions in skiing…really cool…and DEAD.

    Third, that veteran teacher gave horrible advice. I can only assume that he was not very interesting himself.

    I always talk about myself. It may seem like lost time, but you gain that back because the kids work harder for you. Maybe Khan Academy wouldn’t seem so lame to some of us if he talked about some little girl slapping him.

    Sometimes I want to thank my students for being such a great distraction in my life, especially when things aren’t going so well. (You and some of my other math buds know what I’m talking about here.) Although one of my kids figured out what was going on in my life on her own, I never said anything in class. I wish I could tell them how much I appreciate them for this.

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

      It seems funny to you because you are mean.

      That’s EXACTLY what I was thinking of when I wrote about the skiing.

      I think high school teachers kept to themselves more. You think that might be true? I don’t know.

      “… because kids work harder for you.” I really see this too. Hey, don’t knock Khan, who knew how tough he had it in 2nd grade. (But you’re right, nothing could be worse than being slapped by a little girl.)

      When I went through a really difficult period in my life, school saved me too because I had to “perform” in front of 30 kids, period after period, day after day, so they were the distraction I much needed to save my sanity. Until continuation ceremony came and I had to give a little speech on stage, then all the pent up tears came pouring! Oy.

      Thank you, Nathan. You know I love you.

  2. Posted July 18, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your mistakes and what you do that helps with student forgiveness. I do try to share with my students, probably not enough. Am always worried about crossing the line between teacher/friend.

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Frank. Definitely we need to know our boundaries for sharing with kids. If you’re worried, then of course better safe than sorry. What I share mainly happen in public: grocery stores, concerts, workshops, parks and malls — stuff that add some lightness and humor to our day.

  3. Posted July 18, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    This is a wonderful post. So true! All of it! I talk about their life, my life, my son (who’s their age). It’s definitely better when you’re a real person.

    The math part really resonated with me. I didn’t “grow up” on the TI84 because I’m so old. I had to teach myself that for the teachers certification exam (my answer to any integration problem is a page long, all done by hand). When I show them things on the TI, inevitably someone finds some better way and its awesome. I totally celebrate it.

    And one more little thing to add-after you’ve been teaching a while, EVERYTHING in your curriculum is easy, right? I try to remember what wasn’t easy when I had to get back to Alg2 after 20yrs. Last week, a S said she couldn’t hardly do completing the square without the list of steps and I told her “me either”, I have to re-remember that awful process every year, but probably by next year, it’ll be old hat. I don’t want to start thinking my kids are idiots bc they can’t get it instantly. Probably hard to remember that when you’ve taught the are thing for years (I don’t know, I usually have new classes every year).

    Thanks as always for sharing!!

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      When my own 3 kids were at the same school I’m at (and they were all my math students), I didn’t really talk about them — unless it was too good not to tell.

      Now with all the spiffy online calculators, the TI-84 is no longer the go-to tool. I did everything by hand too. And I’m glad I did, something about pencil to paper helps me understand the process better and helps me appreciate the technology more when I use it.

      Thank you so much, Stephanie!

  4. Posted July 18, 2014 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    I like what you said about telling them things you’re not good at. I think it helps when you can talk about how bad you are/were at something and hence identify with their problems. I was awful at English in School, which is one of the reasons I started a blog and an MA in Education to try to improve.

    I henceforth think that coupled with this, you might talk about what you did/are trying to do to get better at that thing.

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      Ooh, I had a lot of trouble with English too, Dan. I still do! Everyone seemed to talk so fast when I first came over, and I thought I would never be able to learn the language. I admire adults who continue to take classes because learning is such a life-long thing.

      Thank you much, Dan!

  5. Eric
    Posted July 18, 2014 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic advice, Fawn. I couldn’t agree more about sharing things you are not good at with the kids. During geometry, I often have the kids do some art related activities (you know multiple intelligence kinda things) and I always compliment them on their work making sure to tell them how much better it is than anything I would be able to do. Its funny how my 6th graders can’t believe that I wouldn’t be able to do the art from something like making a similar cartoon (believe it would be ugly) and it really picks some of them up to know that they are better than me at something in math.

    On a side note, I have a few boys who if you told that slapping story would try to find a way to integrate slapping each other into the day’s math lesson. That would be a better one to keep under wraps in my classroom (although I do enjoy picturing it while I’m reading your post.)

    Thanks again for sharing some great thoughts!

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

      Oh, I’m horrible at drawing. I can’t even draw stick figures to save me. Nobody wants to be my Pictionary partner. (Hey, stop getting me to tell more of what I can’t do, Eric!)

      Thanks much, Eric, for dropping in!

  6. Posted July 18, 2014 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Love this post. It’s this kind of authenticity with which students will connect. That honest relationship will be the source of so much great learning. Some of it will even be mathematical.

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

      Thank you so much for your kind words, John. I feel blessed to be doing something that I really love.

  7. Posted July 18, 2014 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    The most cherished stories I tell include: Pummeling Joey Imbrogno’s head on the sidewalk, hiding a report card from my parents because I failed high school French, and a scuba diving mishap where I stared down a freighter on the St. Clair River. Kids need to see us a human beings, warts and all.

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

      No way, Mary!! Where is Joey Imbrogno now? He should have known better to mess with you. I tried to change a D to a B once on my report card, but it was so obvious that I did that, hence things only got worse for me.

      Thanks for sharing, Mary!

  8. Posted July 18, 2014 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    thank you!

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Elizabeth!

  9. Posted July 18, 2014 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Before I started my student teaching, I was told by several veteran teachers “don’t smile before December”. I couldn’t make it past first period. I mean, if you’re not smiling, they won’t either right? Thanks for the slapping story, that’s priceless!

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

      I hear that advice too. I smile when I greet them at the door. It’s always easier to smile first and then yell at them later. Let’s keep the slapping story in here, alright, Matt?

      Thank you for dropping in, Matt.

  10. Posted July 18, 2014 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Hah! You make me laugh. Thanks for sharing with us.

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for dropping in, Shireen. :)

  11. Hedge
    Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Your humility is one of the many reasons I am thankful for you in my life. Thousands (yes, my love – THOUSANDS) of teachers think you’re a superhero who does nothing short of amazing things in the classroom every single second. You could let us believe that you’ve never had a “sucky” moment in your entire career and we’d stay drunk off that Koolaid, hoping to one day be half as awesome as you. But you’re honest and let us know it’s not always flowers and rainbows. And that gives teachers like me hope.

    I know I’m not perfect and I see daily how much I screw up. And sometimes I get jealous of you and some of our other tweeps – I don’t feel I can ever do what you guys can do. I feel lost. I feel like a total loser and that you can’t relate to my failures.

    Then you post things like this and I realize you’ve felt like I do. And look where you are now. And, once again, you inspire me. You let me know that the weird little things I do (that I assume are insignificant) may actually mean something to my students.

    So let me thank you again for keeping me motivated and on track. You’re an inspirational teacher and I’m thankful to call you “my hot friend” as well. ;-)

    Love you!

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

      I’m going to block you from commenting, Hedge!!

      I’m a geek constantly stealing stuff from our math blogosphere, so “superhero” my ass. Stop it!! Every time I read one of your posts I end up crying like someone just took my only child from me. You’re well loved among us, and it’s just not fun without you! I’ve written a post about you already so it’s no secret how much I adore you.

      Thank you, thank you, thank you.

      Love you more.

  12. Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    With two months to go, this is the kind of gut-wrenchingly honest teacher story I want to read. Thank you Fawn. You make this community feel like we are not alone. This profession is full of genuinely complex emotional shtuff. The stories we tell, the relationships we make, the challenges we face as we try to encourage, motivate and ummmmm yes teach!

    So good Fawn!

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

      THIS community makes me feel like I’m not alone. Our math community is simply AMAZING. We’re always full of ideas and sharing them. But we go beyond sharing lessons, we take time to know a little bit more about each other. I guess this explains why #TMC13 is already “full” with 100 registered attendees, I read that a few are on the waiting list!

      You and I are in this together. How cool is that? Thank you so much, Nico!

  13. Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    I love this, and I agree with you 100%, as usual. Kids really respond to authenticity and they are really turned off by inauthenticity. Students know exactly which teachers have a “phony” teacher persona and which ones are telling them the truth about themselves. I think the only major mistake a teacher can make is falling into that latter category.

  14. Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Oops — cold medicine got the better of me. I meant to say, the only mistake is falling into the former (i.e., the phony) category. See right there? I SCREWED UP AGAIN IN FRONT OF THE WHOLE INTERNET.

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

      You’ve had that cold for some time now. So sorry.

      You’re funny, “the whole internet.” About 5 people were here. That’s okay.

      Thank you for dropping in, Elizabeth!

  15. Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree with Hedge. I love your honesty. As I read your list and checked off all the thing I’ve done this year, it’s nice to know it’s all part of the process.

    Also, using a phrase like “bless his heart” you must have some South in you somewhere.

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it’s all part of the process of learning and trying to suck less each day.

      I was from the south. South Vietnam.

      Thank you for your kind words, Andrew!

  16. Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    You know I’ve already admitted to these mistakes. My favorite: “You’ve doled out a factory-made test without checking through all the questions on it?” That’s what I love about SBG and creating the assessments.
    Thanks for reminding me to tell more stories. Seriously, I just might need to steal some stories from you.
    Thanks for reminding me to share things I’m not good at: Social Studies, History, Geography. Toss a map of the US in front of me and I’m toast. I’m proud to tell students and parents I took Algebra again as a 9th grader. Math was difficult in school.

    You inspire us. You make us laugh. You make some cry. You remind us that we’re human.

    Thank you!

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

      I won’t even tell you my grades in school. My excuse is I was mostly bored. Of course I loved math, but it was 99.9% out of the textbook. But I loved History in grade 11 because our teacher talked to us about all the battles in story-like manner, always injecting humor into it, and that made stuff stick — we wanted to hear the stories!

      I appreciate you so much, Andrew, for always lending an ear (the good one) and being a great friend. Thank you!!

  17. Mimi
    Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    Recently I shared a story about learning to ride a bike as an adult, with a group of students interviewing me. I told them that I didn’t want to be one of those people who say, “It’s just too late for me to learn now,” and I don’t want kids to say that about math, either. I think that’s how I got the job. The teachers who were taking notes at the time told me afterwards that at that moment, I had every single kid in the room!

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

      That’s awesome, Mimi. Sharing stuff that makes us vulnerable and human grounds us and hopefully inspires our kids. Thank you, Mimi.

  18. Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    I love that you and Julie Reulbach and I are all “twins” — you’re from South Vietnam and I’m from South Jersey. :)

    The math Twitterblogosphere is one of the few places I feel understood. Thank you for being in this crazy soup with me!

    • Fawn Nguyen
      Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      There’s a distinction between North and South Jersey? I guess so. I mean North and South Vietnam were like two separate countries for a very long time — only the North was Communist! What’s Jersey’s excuse?

      TMC13 is going to be crazy great.

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