Steven Phelps

Math Teacher

Spectrum Academy Charter School

Pleasant Grove, Utah

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Throughout the year we’ll be featuring stories from Hope Street Fellows in Utah. Thank you for sharing your story, Steven!

My journey as a teacher has been one of advocacy and accountability. For the last four years, I have taught secondary mathematics to students with autism. Entering this role, I felt very prepared. Previously, I had worked with non-traditional students with high levels of success; I connected with these students. Their stories were often similar to mine. I built relationships based on understanding and empathy with the chaos and uncertainty of their lives. However, it is my current students who have taught me what real equity is and have defined my role as a teacher and an advocate. The following are the lessons I have learned. I turned these lessons into simple mantras, and my students affectionately named these mantras after me; referring to them as “Phelpsisms.”

We do hard, and hard is okay!

Students with disabilities often believe “hard” is a four-letter word and a way out of challenges. In the beginning of my teaching career, I too responded to this complaint by coddling students and lowering expectations and rigor. I was wrong. My response only cemented the idea of “hard” in the student’s brain. My response now when a student complains that a task is “hard” is only one word, “Okay,” and wait. Some students may get an additional prompt of “How do we respond to a challenge?”

This complaint is now an opportunity to learn how to respond when challenged. The impending conversation focuses on how to react to “hard.” Students are accountable to the higher standard while permitted to struggle. Empowering students with the ability to reframe hard as an indicator to ask for help is essential to developing the proper mindset. We do hard, and hard is okay!

It is okay to be wrong, but not to stay wrong

Speaking on the topic of learning mathematics, Paul Lockhart said the following: “It is the story that matters, not just the ending.” Classifying answers as right or wrong creates anxiety for many students. Focusing not on the result, but the reasoning receives lip service from almost every math teacher. We still mark a red X on the paper to give it a grade. Putting the score on the assignment reinforces student perception of math as impossible and brings finality to the learning process. Don’t mark it right or wrong! Instead, discuss the student’s reasoning on answers. Focus on both correct and incorrect answers. Human beings learn through failure, but are motivated by success. Give students both at the same time. Removing the stigma from the result creates the classroom culture needed to improve. It honors the risks taken by the student while developing trust with the teacher and the subject. “It is okay to be wrong, but not to stay wrong.” Students who accept this mantra realize the value of incorrect answers and reinforces the perseverance needed for learners to be successful.

He who does the work, does the learning

Stolen from my college professor, Dr. Clark, this “Phelpsism” is vital to student improvement. Can you learn to ride a bicycle by watching your mom or dad? No. Why do we believe you can learn mathematics by watching your teacher? My role is giving students feedback to guide improvement. Students do not receive feedback when only observing. He (or she) who does the work, does the learning. Equally as important, passive learning robs students the opportunity to develop the reasoning and creativity needed. Creativity in mathematics is a requirement to develop problem-solving skills. Our future does not need human calculators but requires creative problem solvers.

Math is a language

Math teachers will recognize this far too common conversation.

Student: “I don’t understand this.”

Teacher: “You don’t understand what?”

Student: “Everything?”

The student in this conversation does not understand the language of mathematics, like a visitor in a foreign land, lacking the ability to communicate. Students will resort to pointing to challenging sections or become resistant to engaging in the learning process. Teaching math as a language empowers students to participate in mathematics discussions and opens additional resources for assistance. Teachers must focus on developing the vocabulary of math and teaching students to ask targeted questions.

You have my permission to struggle

This is perhaps the most important mantra of all. This mindset that it is okay to struggle must drive every action in your classroom. The struggle is a requirement for growth and a vital part of the learning process. Students must know that their teacher will help them reach the desired outcome, regardless of need. As teachers give permission for students to temporarily struggle, teachers are able to analyze each student and provide the necessary support to achieve success. An equitable teacher must provide a safe environment for students to make mistakes and hold students accountable for correcting errors. Students often have negative feelings and massive anxiety toward math. All parties must respect safety in the classroom and honor the risks taken by students.

Evidence for mindset may not appear in test scores, but it does appear in how students respond to struggle. I look for evidence that my students are adopting the mindset outside the classroom. Recently, one of my students was being tested by the school psychologist. She recounted that the student was talking about how doing hard things makes us learn and mistakes are part of the process. My heart was filled as I heard her brag about his maturity and thought processes.

A classroom must be a safe place to try hard things; to make mistakes and fix them. Teachers need to evaluate classroom policies and environment to ensure each supports the safety and trust required. Using these mantras provides the framework needed for success. These simple mantras work. Your last name doesn’t have to be Phelps to adopt my “Phelpsisms” and make them your own.