Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 30 2012


Teachers need to be patient. Really patient. SO INCREDIBLY PATIENT.

Because here’s the thing. Some kids will get stuff the first time. And then there are some kids who will kind of get it the first time, but then they will really get it the second time. And then there are some kids who need to see something 3, 4, 5 times before they get it. All of that takes patience.

But then there are the kids who still don’t get it after six billion examples, three billion leading questions, nineteen thousand either/or choices, and 392 erasures. For these kids, teachers need the patience of a…searching for a good metaphor…they just need to be really patient. Like a saint or something.

I am not a saint. Just ask my parents. So sometimes I get frustrated with making the same mistake over and over and still not knowing it, and then I let that frustration show on my face, and then the kid can tell I’m frustrated, and since their fragile self-confidence was halfway hanging on the fact that I believed they could do it, they crumple. And then I’m the worst person in the world, because what kind of awful jerkface gets upset with a kid because they don’t understand?


I have a student who cannot multiply. It’s bizarre, because sometimes she can miraculously do it, but we have been working on things like 53 x 12 since literally November, me reteaching her multiplication every time it comes up (which, as you might imagine, is often). We worked together, one on one, half an hour a day for three months. I still have to reteach every time it comes up so that we don’t get things like 7 x 14 = 38. (For extra bonus points, can you see the mistake she always makes? Sometimes she gets 92, which is a different mistake. Write it up and down and it might jump out at you…) And it doesn’t help that this particular kid has such language issues, she just doesn’t understand what I’m saying half the time. So then we get situations where she does one problem wrong three times, we work like heck and she knows she’s getting it wrong and she knows I just explained how to do it right, but she can’t for the life of her understand what I’m saying. She’s upset because I’m using this awful excessively patient tone, which exacerbates the language issue because she’s flustered and desperate to do it right, and she still can’t do the problem. Sometimes she cries. And then I feel like crap.

I have another student who cannot remember pretty much anything, especially multiplication facts. Here’s a recap of our conversation with flash cards today:

Me: “What’s 7 x 7?”

Her: “Uh….” (Ten seconds later.)

Me: “It’s 49. What’s 7 x 7?”

Her: “49.”

Me: “Great! What’s 8 x 8?”

Her: “Uh…”

Me: “8 x 8 fell on the floor, picked itself up it was…”

Her: “64!”

Me: “Awesome! What’s 7 x 7 again?”

Her: “Uh…”

&*(&#@!&$!!!!!! Blach! It’s so incredibly frustrating. For her and for me. Anyone got ideas for memorizing multiplication facts for kids who can’t remember things reliably? I’m thinking taping facts to her desk until she memorizes one, then switching it out. Or starting everything I say to her with a math fact, the same one all day. I’m hoping desperately that one billion more repetitions will do the trick, because I’m kind of at a loss as to what else to do. I’m tired of feeling like a jerk when they don’t get it but although my patience is less than saintly my determination is terrier-like, and I’m not ready to give up yet. Until then, I guess I take some deep breaths.

13 Responses

  1. This is no quick fix, but have you tried the multiplication table game at freerice.com (perhaps on your TFA iPad)? It gets my kids doing times table drilling when it seems like nothing else will.

    • eminnm

      Good call on the iPad games–we started today and made a Top Score chart for her desk. We’ll see how it goes!

  2. T

    Do these two students have learning disabilities? Their profiles sound very much like the profiles of students who have learning disabilities. It is extremely common for students with LD to remember something one day, not remember it the next day, then remember it again an hour after an exam. I’ve seen LD students remember something on page one of a test and forget it by page three.

    • eminnm

      I am preparing a referral packet for one, but unfortunately she was so good at faking what everyone else is doing, and her performance is so randomly right while being mostly wrong that it took me a while to realize how severe her math problems were. So we’re working on it. The other just has immense memory issues, which are legitimate problems but hard to get approval for a referral. Maybe I should try anyway?

      • T

        I think it’s worth it to try with both if you think there might be legitimate issues. The worst that can happen is that one or both get denied services. Even then, at least it’s documented that they had previously been referred, which may be important in the future if other teachers also think there might be a reason for referral – schools usually do keep that in mind when considering whether to test a student.

        As for the student being good at faking what other people are doing – time to get on your A+++ game for documentation. Photocopy her work whenever you can, that way you can show how, even if she happened to make a few mistakes that canceled one another out to get the right answer, she missed the important concepts. Also, be sure to document any strategies you have tried and if they were at all successful, and if so, to what degree. Especially with the RTI model, it is important to show that other interventions are not enough.

        Good luck!!

    • You stole my thunder! I was plnnaing on writing about that trick for tipping. I guess I still could. I typically tip 15% so it makes that math a little easier. I just take 10% of the bill and then add half of that to the 10%. So, with a $80 bill, I would take 10% and get $8 and then half of the $8 is $4. Add those two together to get your $12 tip. Pretty simple!

  3. Gary Rubinstein

    Have you tried raising your expectations?

    • eminnm

      Care to elaborate? I don’t think I see the connection you do.

      • Gary Rubinstein

        Oh, I was just joking — giving what I perceived to be the TFA staff response. I really liked this post because it does show how tough teaching is. Kids often don’t ‘get it’ despite the fact that the teacher has seemingly done everything possible. This is a great honest post you wrote — keep up the good work.

        • eminnm

          OK, that’s a relief. Half of my brain thought your comment was so useless not even my MTLD would try to offer that as advice (to be fair, I have never had TFA staff spout jargon at me when I am seriously asking for help). The other half of my brain started to do some serious soul-searching about whether I really DO have high expectations, until I decided that merely expecting them to learn things is useless unless I expect myself to find new ways to teach them. Which is probably a good conversation to have with oneself every now and again, but thanks for the clarification!

  4. parus

    Not saying your kids don’t need intervention or that memorizing multiplication tables isn’t important, or that these aren’t symptoms of a larger cognitive issue. But I’ve honestly never been able to remember my multiplication and division tables beyond the 6s (and the 10s, of course), and I aced high school and college math all the way through calculus. Thank goodness adults are allowed to use calculators. I’m not sure what it is about 7 through 9 that keeps them from sticking in my memory, but I honestly find it necessary to do, say, 6*4*2 in place of 6*8 when mental math is required.

    • T

      Oh, absolutely – if this problem is localized to multiplication, or even just math, then I wouldn’t be concerned about a learning disability or anything like that. Considering the fact that the first student has “such language issues” (unless by language issues, you mean English is not the first language, which is different from what I assumed) and the second student “cannot remember pretty much anything,” I made the possibly false assumption that these issues are presenting themselves across a variety of settings and subjects.

      • eminnm

        No, out here language issues means receptive and expressive language impairments, which are a legacy of the boarding schools where students were beaten for speaking their own language but not really taught English. A whole generation of people has poor language skills because of it, and because language is something you learn from your parents, especially when you live in rural isolation, it only continues down the generations to my kids. The problems, both language and memory (separate issue), present themselves across nearly every setting and subject. If they could do some multiplication in their heads and use it to circumvent fact memorization, I’d be ecstatic because that’s better conceptual understanding anyway.

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