Taking off the Binary Bifocals

At the CCTM (Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics) conference this year, I had the honor to present an Ignite Session. The set-up of an Ignite is a 5 minute presentation where the powerpoint will move to the next slide every 15 seconds, whether or not you are ready. Inspired by recent events in our world and personal reflection, I wrote the following on discovering my position in the scheme of education and teaching. Below is the original piece, however, to fit the Ignite format, I had to greatly cut it down. The video to that can be found through the link below. Enjoy!

Click here to see the Video!

 

Taking off the Binary Bifocals

Let’s face it,

When it comes to math teachers,

There’s exists a few stereotypes

And I have felt the uncomfortable wrappings that have covered me

Nerd

A Unique sense of humor

Un-social-able

And as much as I try to break these wrappings,

These stereotypes

I remain a label

And something tells me

One

Or two

Hundred of you

Have found yourself conforming to some of these

And many other

Stereotypes

You know… the kinds that we confront when we meet people for the first time –

I’m sure you’ve all had an interaction like this,

“Nice to meet you too… And what do you do?”

Me? I teach math

“Eww… I was always bad at math…

I could never do math especially when they started adding in letters…

But you must be so smart…

And At least it’s easy to grade.

Only right and wrong answers.

None of those essays…”

And it occurred to me that many others out there see us

Math teachers

Through this binary perspective
Conforming to a label they have created

We either are a math teacher ore we are not

We either are a one or we are a zero

We are…

And we are both the product of and the producers of

Right and wrong

Let’s face it,

As math teachers, we have created our own little matrix

One that we view our world, our schools, our students through

A pair of binary bifocals if you will

And we see our world in that way.

I know I did

I’d rely on

Rows and columns of students

All ones and zeros

A binary view

A view of students as knowing or not knowing

A view of students as on task or not on task

A view of students as passing or not passing

Black or White,

Foreign or domestic,

Male or female

And I did this

Keanu’d my own matrix world

From a position of power

Power that we all have

Power that we may sometimes forget we have

Power that we exude even when we don’t try

Power that makes the ones and zeros

I used that power to impart my perspective

I would bend the students to be my ones

Others I’d leave behind in a land of zeros

Because that’s what they had earned…

From the moment I entered teaching

Put on my bifocals

I knew I wanted to change the world

I wanted to save students

Unlike the world that saved me

Through my lenses

I saw my past

I saw that I grew up always wanting,

Never having enough

But always having just enough

I knew no one would give me a future

So I knew I had to give myself a future

I knew I had to work hard

Get good grades

Earn scholarships

And work my way through college on two jobs

While I was student teaching

But I overcame my fate

On my own

And I returned to the world that gave me a chance

So I put on my glasses

And entered my first classroom

Well not my classroom

I had the pleasure of sharing rooms

Being on the bottom of the proverbial pole

But that’s ok

My life had started at the bottom

And I had climbed up once

And being on the bottom of the pole,

I was given mostly “bottom” classes

Geometry… Survey…

A class for students who struggled

Who had two years of Algebra

Who as juniors were learning Geometry

But a Geometry devoid of proofs

A Geometry devoid of rigor

A Geometry devoid of color

As we used a two tonal book

That two tonal book

Was indicative of my two tonal, binary view

These were the zeros

These were the ones – the ones that did not know math

And this is where I began my quest to save those that needed saving

Help those that needed it to escape a fate

Escape a community

That was obviously destroying them

I mean that’s what we learn from the evening news

And when I looked at the class and saw

A class more diverse than the makeup of the school

It further reinforced that the students needed saving

And I would be that savior

Sure along the way, I had challenges

I was confronted with cultures I didn’t interact with growing up

And I made mistakes

For some of which I was called racist

Through whispers, words, and ways

But not me, no, not me, I could never be racist….

Racism doesn’t’ exist anymore…

Right?

And I kept those glasses on for a long time…

But I heard a teacher exclaim once –

“It doesn’t matter to me if they’re white or black…

I treat all students the same”

And I felt the glasses slipping

I pushed to have a two period class for students struggling in Algebra

A logical thing to do instead of having students take Algebra over two years

And denied opportunities

And had teachers retort

“You can’t keep those kids in class for two periods”

When I did get the class

A class consisting of under-represented populations

I realized those kids were those kids

And the glasses slipped more

I worked with a student who was eventually removed from the Honors program

Because she failed her French class

Because she would miss class to tend to her family

And her teacher would give her zeros on all the assignments from those days

Including tests

Until she failed

And as a Latina she saw her White counterparts given time to make up assignments from their absences

And the glasses fell to the edge of my nose

And then one day

A student,

A Black boy

Came into my room late,

Later than he should have

And instead of letting him stay and learn with his classmates

I made him leave to get a pass, knowing he wouldn’t come back

And other students who saw the interaction confronted me,

Told me I wouldn’t have done that to other students in the class.

That I was hard because he was Black, and male

And they were right.

And I had no choice anymore

I took my glasses..

Off.

And suddenly my world that I had created for myself

A world that was rational

That was once all ones and zeros

Suddenly became irrational

Became an infinite array of all the irrationals in between zero and one

Every student unique and different

No one conforming to a stereotype

Because you can’t create a rule for something that is without a rule,

Without end

                Each with their own sense of beauty

Each one would be the best student I ever had

And I could finally see

I saw my past

I saw that even when I thought I was alone in pulling myself up

I was pulled up by society

As a White, Protestant, Male

It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the means

I had the image, the identity

And I conformed to a societal success story

So I became that story

I didn’t earn it.

And I saw my present.

I saw the building I was teaching in,

The students I worked with,

The injustices that were occurring

So I decided to work for change –

Being open about the injustices I saw with our administration

Yet from a perspective of a White male

If I couldn’t give back to society everything it had given me

Because of my race

Gender,

Religion

I would use that position to advocate

I decided to change the way I taught.

I began my foray into social justice,

Wiggling a toe,

Sticking in a leg,

Then diving in and back out,

A work that I have committed to learning and teaching

But a work that can’t happen overnight,

A work that can’t be done while wearing the binary bifocals

And I saw my future

I saw the chance to speak to people,

Like I am today,

And to spread a message

To tell people that you may still be wearing your binary bifocals

And, you may have lofty goals

Like I had

Change the world

But who’s world are you changing?

And is it yours to change?

For me, it is now my call to teach the students

To be the change

They want to see in the world

Save the students

But from what?

From what I have seen without my glasses

Students are brilliant in their own right

In their own way

I chose to be at their side,

Guide, support, and raise up

I chose to know the students,

To learn from them,

Their stories, their culture

And it makes me a better me,

A better math teacher

And not be called a racist while doing it…

Yet –

We are so afraid to be called an –ist

We do nothing about the –isms

We see the –isms as belonging to others

But from our perch of power and privilege

We are the –isms

So I chose to use my power to fight the –isms I can control

Whether you chose to see it our not,

We are no longer in a world of

Black or White,

Foreign or domestic,

Male or female

There is an infinite world in between

And if students are not knowing

Not on task

Not passing

It’s not their fault,

It’s mine.

After a prior speaking engagement,

I once had someone in the audience tell me,

“You sure look like a math teacher,

But you don’t sound like a math teacher”.

And the wrappings around me have begun to crack,

And for some who know me, those stereotypes about us Math Teachers,

Have begun to fade away.

And they can for you too

Just take off the binary bifocals

And see your world

See your school

See your students

For who and what they really are.

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  • jennifer Linda

    Would you please let us know

    thanks