Enter the Matrix (or something like it)

I’m sitting at my computer, staring at a blank screen. There are lessons to plan. And yet I can’t move a muscle. I can’t bring my eyes to look at the textbook I need to reference. I can’t open the templates I’ve made to give myself a starting point. I’m paralyzed.

So I close my computer and go home.

Then, on a whim, I decide to take a bath and read. I’ve been promising myself I’d do this for weeks, looking longingly at the tub and thinking, “I would enjoy that so much,” and yet never doing it. So finally I just did it. And the book I brought was Daring Greatly.

And, oh, does she know my struggles.

I’ve been trying to blog about this book, because it’s a personal journey that’s important to me, but then I got into reading other books and ignored this one. I know. Classic. But last week I read the next chapter, and while there was a lot of material there, none of it resonated as blog post inspiration. So in the tub I began chapter four.

The Vulnerability Armory. The methods we use to keep our vulnerability–and therefore our shame–at a distance. And as the bath water bubbled and fizzed around me in a cascade of auroras, I realized everything she described was everything I had felt but not recognized while staring at my computer, trying to plan these lessons.

Normally lesson planning looks like this: I pull up the material I used last year (or had inherited from the teacher who taught it the year before) and update it based upon personal preference, timing in the semester (which changes every year with the calendar and whatnot), and areas where things need improvement based upon last year’s students and their struggles to understand and comprehend the material. Then I make/update the homework, make sure it’s aligned to our standards, and it’s done.

Then we started dual enrollment this year, and while it’s exciting that my kids can earn college credit for this class, it also means adding an entirely new unit on matrices. And there’s no older lesson plans for me to update; I’m making all this from scratch.

Brene describes the first bit of armor as foreboding joy–the feeling of seeing something that makes us happy and then imagining all the worst things that could happen. Like imagining all my lesson plans having bad examples. I’ll make mistakes at the front of the classroom. The students will never learn this. It’ll be a complete flop. And we won’t get through all the material. And I was a junior in college before I learned matrices, do I really think I can teach it so well that high schoolers will understand it?

So not only was I imagining the worst that could happen to me, I was also projecting that insecurity onto my students. That’s not fair for them, and it’s not fair for me.

Brene says the antidote to foreboding joy is practicing gratitude; and while the idea of adding a new unit does scare me, I’m also excited and grateful to have the chance. This is really my first opportunity to completely plan a unit from beginning to end, and I’m definitely grateful that my professional peers believe I’m not only capable of doing this, but also capable of doing it well. I’m also grateful to teach something new, especially matrices. When I first learned about them, they opened my eyes to a whole new world of mathematics, and while I know we won’t be going as deeply into the theory and implications of linear algebra in this class, it’s still exciting to brush the surface and perhaps inspire my students to love this material as much as I do. Honestly, linear algebra was the first class at NC State that I made an effort to form a study group with, and I still remember one night before an exam (maybe it was the final?), we were studying in the math lounge and our teacher came by. Noticing us, she came in and reminded us we all needed a good night’s rest before the test, to not stay up too late. And it was wonderful. The care she’d give her students, all adults, was just amazing.

The second weapon: perfectionism. And oh, do I know I’m a perfectionist! I can pore over a lesson plan for hours until it seems perfect, and while I’ve learned that no lesson plan is ever perfect (because perfection is impossible, and even if I could plan it to be perfect for last year’s students, it won’t necessarily be perfect for this year’s students, because they’re different people with different strengths and different struggles). But when I sat down to make brand new lesson plans, ones never taught before, all those feelings of perfectionism came back–and they were crippling. The fear of these lessons not being perfect prevented me from even starting to plan them. So I ran away.

The solution to the problem of perfectionism is self-compassion. If I were listening to another teacher express these same concerns, I’d respond by saying the feelings are legitimate, but just giving up wouldn’t make her feel better and wouldn’t serve the students well. And “perfect” or not, she’ll feel much better once the lessons are planned than when they’re still a messy idea in her head. So why should I be hard on myself and demand perfection when I wouldn’t treat another teacher like that? So I should plan the lessons, and though they won’t be perfect, they’ll be a starting place I can improve upon.

The final armor, Brene says, is numbing–and if I wasn’t numbing myself, I don’t know what was going on. I numbed myself so deeply that yesterday I pretty much did nothing. All day. I slept late. Played video games. Ate ice cream. I did nothing.

The answer is mindfulness: acknowledging the feelings and sitting with them. Yeah it sucks to feel vulnerable, to feel like everything I do is going to turn out badly, and it’ll never be as good as I want it to be, but those feelings will pass, and I would feel much worse getting to class with lessons thrown together at the last minute because I didn’t put in the time beforehand to make them better. It’s not easy, but it’s important.

Reflecting on all these things…I don’t really feel much better about the lessons, but I at least feel like I can get started making them. And once they’re made, I will feel better.

Addendum: After I wrote this reflection, I didn’t feel like proofreading it right away, so instead I tried to start making the slides for my lessons (which are pretty much my lesson plans, to be honest). I began by making a list of goals I want my students to achieve (such as solving systems of equations using matrices and inverting them), and then I began going page by page through our textbook, picking out the material that’s important for us to cover and the examples that will help my students understand and master the material. It went slowly, I suppose, but much faster than my first stalled attempt. In only a few hours (only!), I was able to create thirteen slides that not only moderate the material to a level I think will provide a range of entry points for my students, but also scaffolds the content with multiple examples and connections to prior knowledge.

One of these connections I’m especially proud about deals with the Row-Echelon Form of a matrix. This weird and unusual name actually describes something incredibly simple (as often is the case in mathematics): a stair-like pattern in a matrix that makes it particularly useful for multiple applications. The word “echelon” is likely a word many students have never heard before (I’m not even sure if I’d ever heard it before my linear algebra class about seven years ago), but because I teach in a predominantly Latino school, I can use this opportunity to relate new vocabulary to vocabulary my students are already familiar with: the Spanish words for stairs, “las escalera” and “el escalon.” My hope is that this connection will not only help them cement the new word in their vocabulary, but also demystify its meaning so it feels less intimating.

There’s still a lot left to plan (I’d wager I’ve covered just under half the necessary content, and it could probably use more examples, not to mention I need to make homework sets, a unit exam, a mid-unit quiz, and then determine proper pacing so I know what material to cover each day), but having come this far, having broken past that crippling inertia, I feel more confident to keep going. Now that I have a little done, those insecurities I was feeling, those vulnerabilities, seem less powerful than I thought they were. I’m still concerned if my students will understand (I always am–my goal as a teacher is to help them learn, so my fear is always that I won’t be good enough to help them get there), and I still have that urge to be perfect, but I’m also grateful to have made it this far, and I’m trying to be gentle with myself, not expecting more than is reasonable. Maybe it won’t be perfect this year, and that’s okay. I can take what I learn and improve for next year.

This is, I suppose, a small victory in the war against my own armory, in my battle against the biggest beast: perfectionism. But one victory leads to another, and with practice, and yes, with failure, I will become stronger. I will take charge of the tools I have behind me, and I will use them to cut through the webs that try to hold me back.

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