Saturday, July 7, 2012

Numbers, numbers, numbers

As opposed to "words, words, words" (Hamlet).

I don't consider myself much of a numbers person.  Math was not one of my better subjects for a variety of reasons, but I now regret that I resigned myself to being a non-math person without much of a fight.  Not that I would choose to be a math or science person - I've always gravitated more to language and the written word, but I probably would have benefited from a bit more left-brain work when that part of my body was still developing.

But, while I find my natural affinity lies with language, numbers play an important role in my life and work.  This is both a win/lose situation, setting me up for moments when I can clearly see "progress" based on numbers and other moments when I can see "failure" because of those tricky little digits.  Often, the separation between progress/success and failure is minuscule, yet I interpret it as a huge gap that I can't ever bridge.  Also, I evaluate and/or define myself based on certain numbers.  This is not inherently problematic, especially when I am evaluating the numbers and thinking about what they mean without applying a deep, personal significance to them.  However, these little numbers can lay a trap for me (or I lay a trap for myself) when I define myself by a 4, 3 or 5.  Or other numbers, for that matter.

To get to the heart of the matter, numbers have been on my mind for much of the spring and summer as I've been training for various events.  Additionally, as a teacher, they are not far from my reality during the school year - nor during the summer, when the ever-lovely College Board releases AP scores, and a number represents or summarizes students' and teachers' work over the course of an academic year.  All that work, reduced to a student's performance in a 3-4 hour period.  Not being a student, I cannot speak to their reaction, but there is usually a certain amount of anticipation and then either relief, excitement or disappointment that follows the release of the scores.  Now, I don't consider myself to be a 'master teacher' at all, but my students, on the whole, have performed quite well - usually better than I expected - on the AP.  This year, however, I felt a sharp twinge of disappointment when I saw some of the scores and the overall student average.  This has prompted me to turn a critical eye to my teaching and my expectations over the past year - perhaps I was not rigorous enough?  Very possible. Perhaps the class size affected the performance of the students?  Also possible. Perhaps several students just had a pretty bad day?  Also possible.

There are, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, many known unknowns here.  It is tempting to lay it all at my own feet, blame myself and suddenly condemn myself as a terrible teacher.   I could also reduce the entire classroom experience that I had with these students to their performance on the AP Exam.  I am, however, trying hard to take it in stride.  Yes, I care more than is comfortable for me (this kept me up half the night), but ultimately I need to see these numbers as information.  They are not an indictment of me as a 'terrible teacher' nor do they reflect poorly on my students who were, on the whole, a lovely group of people.

As conflicted as I feel about my students' AP scores, focusing on numbers in terms of running and biking often brings a sense of triumph and accomplishment or allows me to assess my ability and/or performance.  I caved back in May and finally bought a Garmin, despite my preference to "run free".  I decided that it would be good to actually know how far my run or bike ride was rather than more-or-less estimate the distance, taking a laissez-faire attitude to my training and competing.  I now find myself completely addicted to the Garmin and its wonderful data collection-abilities!  What did I do before Garmin?! Why did I even bother running?  Now, as much as I enjoy the reports that Garmin generates, again I find that I need to proceed with some caution when I review the numbers.  Yeah, it's great to finally hit an average of 18+ mph on the bike (still slow, but getting there) and I love looking at the elevation gain/loss diagram and knowing that I climbed 1,900 feet during my ride on Thursday, but it doesn't mean that I'm necessarily a better biker or runner.

I would like to keep in mind that, before I'm too addicted to watching the numbers rise (or fall, depending on what the numbers are), just like my students' AP scores, there will come a time when these numbers disappoint me for one reason or another.  I'll have a bad race.  I'll get older and stiffer.  Life will happen, and my times will go down (or up, depending on the definition of that) and my mileage will shrink.  So, I'm trying to refrain from defining myself by a X:XX minute mile or a 10-mile run.  Instead of seeing these numbers as an easy way to define myself, I'll try to keep them in perspective and use them as a good resource to evaluate myself and my abilities.  Just like my students' performance on the AP - a good resource to evaluate and assess myself and the curriculum.

Shew, these were a lot of words dedicated to numbers! No wonder I'm going a bit crazy!

Now, to end with a few concrete numbers from the week:
- Miles run today: 10 (double digits!)
- Blisters on foot: 1.5 (I had one and then another sort of formed on top of it; kind of gross)
- Walks this week with the dogs: 12-ish
- Fireworks viewed on the 4th: 0
- Loads of laundry since we returned last week: About 8
- Letters that I need to write: 5
- Hours spent watching Le Tour: Oh, let's not go there...


Anonymous said...

Hi Kristina,

That is a big bummer about the kids' AP scores. My husband is an AP teacher, too, so I know what it is like to have a disappointing set of scores. Just remember you only have so much control over how a random crop of kids will perform. Unfortunately the schools too get caught up in this number and use it to evaluate YOUR performance as well as that of the students.

Some things it makes sense to quantify (miles run in training, loads of laundry, number of cute guys in Tour de France and so on) but learning really isn't one of those things.

Kristina said...


Thanks for understanding about the scores - as your husband teaches AP, then you are probably quite familiar with the pressure that teachers feel.
You are also correct that schools do use the number to evaluate teachers' performances. I do have several years of excellent scores to 'buffer' this crop, but more than anything, I'm just surprised at certain students' scores.

And good luck quantifying the number of cute guys in the Tour! That sounds like a fun task! I'll definitely take it over AP predictions.