Lessons from the Field: Interview with Dan Meyer

This post is part of the The Teachers Certification Map’s “lessons from the field”, a series of posts featuring passionate, inspiring educators from across the country discussing some of the lessons that they have learned over the years that would help young teachers as they embark on their careers.

Dan Meyer teaches teach high school math — a mix of Algebra, Geometry, and remedial math. Dan told us that he “teaches math to a lot of students who don’t enjoy math.”  With that being said, he remains positive.  Dan recently completed his fifth year, which he told us is more fun than the first.

Below is our interview with Dan:

What inspired you to teach?

I never wanted to teach. Now I’m a third-generation teacher. Both from a spirit of childhood rebellion and because I saw my dad work incredibly hard to support my family on a single teaching income, this job was never my ambition. I wanted to make movies but I was exceptionally untalented at filmmaking, a fact which various film school admissions boards will confirm. In my final year of a mathematics degree, I interned in a pre-calculus classroom, where I found myself exceptionally empathetic to the struggle of the learner and moderately gifted to resolve that struggle. Therefore, teaching. Because I wasn’t terrible. Put that on a mug. Of course, I moaned for three years that my passions and abilities hadn’t aligned. After my second year I made another unsuccessful leap at filmmaking. After my third year, my passions and my abilities aligned a little more, and it was hard, after my fourth year, to imagine doing anything but teach.

What classroom methods are most helpful in pushing students towards their goals?

I started using a digital projector in my third year teaching. In terms of methodology, nothing before or since has affected student achievement more. Runners up, however:

a) I assign one homework problem per night. The longer I have taught, the less time I waste on discipline, which has made it easier to get enough done in class to let us take the evening off.
b) I measure student achievement on a series of skill rankings, which are fluid and updated weekly. This has struck me as more accurate than a series of comprehensive unit exams.

But that’s methodology. And functional methodology in a toxic classroom culture is a bullet train to nowhere. I have made a lot of intentional steps, then, to promote “curiosity” as a cultural value of my classes.

What is the one thing you wish you’d known when you started in the classroom?

Your students will excavate with profound determination and speed every social anxiety you thought you buried. It will take them minutes to decide that you are insecure about your appearance. Do not wonder if they notice your post-adolescent pimple. They do. They will exploit these anxieties as often as you allow them to. Determine quickly what matters to you and rid your psyche of the rest. Interest yourself in your students as often and as genuinely as possible. Love this job. Love your students. I’m not kidding about that last one even though I’m positive my 21-year-old self would have scoffed at that kind of attachment. Take it from me, please, you do not want to be the teacher I was when I was 21.

What did your training teach you that was most helpful in preparing you to enjoy and thrive in a classroom today?

I hold the teacher preparation program at UC Davis in high regard. My coordinator, Allan Bellman, selected a cohort of chatty, introspective educators who responded to their profound, daily incompetence by talking and talking and talking. And when we stopped talking, Bellman asked good questions that got us talking again.

The same school awarded me a master’s degree, for which I now receive a modest stipend from my school district. In terms of “enjoying and thriving in a classroom today” or even in terms of “students learning more from their teacher” that money is not well spent. I enjoyed the program. It taught me to think about my practice in more academic terms. But I thrived in my job and enjoyed it not even a little bit more after I finished the program. Find a good community of good teachers. Find them online if you must. Read blogs. Write a blog. Tweet, if you must.

Do you know someone with great insights to share with young teachers, or do you want to be considered for an interview? If so, please email us at hello@certificationmap.com.

This is a guest post from our journalist Alex J. Mann.  You can subscribe to his blog hereand follow him on Twitter here.