I took a bit of a break from writing because I’m actually not teaching at Saint Ann’s anymore! I started a Ph.D. program in math education at UC Berkeley in September, so the past six months have been consumed with homework, readings, papers—that sort of thing. The first thing I’ll say about that is that while teaching, I have definitely become I worse student. I hear this is common. If anyone would like to do some research on the terrible students that former teachers become, I volunteer myself as a case-study.

I’m writing again for two reasons. First of all, I re-found a great education blog by someone who is also on the other side—Ilana Horn! I was in the middle of a small bout of despair about education writing when I re-found her blog. I have small bouts of despair about things related to education research every now and then, and this one was sparked by what I’ll call the Talking Right Past Each Other Paradox: Education researchers say their main goal is to help teachers, but they feel like their work doesn’t often get read by teachers. My first thought when I heard this was, “Because the researchers don’t blog about it!” And then I remembered that one of them does blog about it! And I realized that it is possible to write something about education research in a human, intriguing, and useful way. And I wanted in.

I’m obviously not ready to do this on even 1% of the same level as Ilana—so that’s not really why I’m writing again. The second, and primary, reason why I’ve jumped back in is basically the same as why I started blogging in the first place—because I’m having teaching problems.

Just like I was totally unprepared to teach math to kiddos when I first started at Saint Ann’s (not the fault of a teacher prep program—I didn’t go to one), I am totally unprepared to teach teaching to college students. This also isn’t the fault of a teacher-teacher prep program, because there isn’t one. I’m really not sure why. It’s not like college students aren’t kids, too, who need care and personal attention. It’s also not like teacher educators have got the whole teaching thing figured out, either.

Anyway, a little back-story to my current teaching problem—I’ve been “TA-ing” and “researching” in an education class for undergrads who are in one of Berkeley’s teacher prep programs. But the other day, I was launched from my cozy position as TA to the much scarier position of actual teacher. The instructors didn’t have anything planned for an hour chunk of class and one of them was going to be late. So they pulled out their secret weapon, the TA, to fill in the gap.

What should I do with 40 pre-service teachers for an hour? I first approached the task like I would if they were 40 high school students with whom I was asked to share something cool and mathy. They’d just read some articles about inquiry learning, so I thought we could do a little math inquiry together. But then I realized that my lesson was missing something essential. I had a great math problem picked out. But they weren’t going to do any teaching. I didn’t have a “teaching problem.”

And this is when the sheer challenge of the task hit me. I needed a teaching problem—but there are no kids here.

If the material of math problems is math, then the material of teaching problems is kids, right? You use math to do math, and you use kids to do teaching. Sure, plenty of math problems you find are missing the “real math”—but if you dig around enough and know what you’re looking for, you’re sure to find something. But, search all you like, you will not find kids in this class.

You may now be wondering whether I’ve been paying attention at all during the last six months of grad school. Yes, I knew before yesterday that there are no kids in education grad school. And, yes, I have been reading my Pam Grossman and I know a bit about “approximations of practice” and that sort of thing. I knew that folks had already identified the lack of kids as a problem in courses about teaching. I guess it didn’t hit me how much of a challenge this really is for developing good activities for pre-service teachers until I had to develop one of my own.

I did come up with something to do with the pre-service teachers. It did not involve the miraculous appearance of kids. Like most spur-of-the-moment, first-time activities run by new teachers (because I’m definitely a new teacher now, as new as I’d be if I switched to teaching English), it didn’t go as planned. I want to try it again, with Round 1 under my belt, and then I’ll write about it. I’m not sure if it was any good.

Until then, though, I just wanted to reflect about this problem for myself and anyone who is interested. I also wanted to ask for help. Does anyone have any good teaching problems? I’m calling them that because it makes a parallel with math problems that’s helpful for me. I don’t want teaching exercises, I want teaching problems, ones that really make people think and engage with genuine teaching. If I tried my hardest to not give kids math exercises when I was a math teacher, I want to try my hardest not to give kids teaching exercises now that I’m a teaching teacher.

It seems like the task might be more difficult, though, because like I said, there are no kids here. That seems like a real problem to me.