Small Wins Help

This year, like last year and the year before that, is rough. Like many, probably most, teachers I am feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Knowing that and being many years into my teaching career, I am trying to find the positives and wins in my daily professional life. I don’t manage it daily. Yet.

Yesterday afternoon we worked on this math problem.

It says, “At the pet store there are fish in 5 tanks. There are equal numbers of fish in each tank. If there are between 50 and 75 fish, how many fish could there be in each tank?”

We did it mentally and all together as part of our preparation for a more challenging problem.

The first student proposed that there were 10 fish in each tank. We confirmed that if so that did mean “equal numbers of fish in each tank” and then calculated that there would be a total of 50 fish. (I briefly pointed out that 50 isn’t actually between 50 and 75 but we accepted the response and moved on.)

The next student suggested 20 fish in each tank. Again, we confirmed that it met our expectations for equal numbers and then did the calculations. The student told us that there would be 100 fish total. We checked the problem and realized that was too many fish.

I watched that student, a strong math student who is regularly successful in school, had clearly not anticipated being wrong, especially in front of their classmates, wilt visibly. I was recently chatting with a preservice teacher and, in response to one of her questions, I said that teachers need to share when they make mistakes and to find the positives in their students’ mistakes.

I am not always good at doing the latter. (Several years into teaching, I worked hard to get good at the former. I rock at it now.) Yesterday I paused and considered the 20 fish in each tank and said, “This is fantastic. We already knew that 10 fish in each tank was barely enough to meet the parameters of the question. Now we know that 20 fish in each tank is too many. X has helped us rein in our thinking and figured out where we need to focus. That’s really helpful in problem solving.”

We continued working on the problem with lots of energy and enthusiasm. Students went off to try the more challenging problem (a farm has chickens and cows, there are 20 animals and 56 legs, how many chickens and cows are there) raring to go. I am confident that my response to a ‘wrong’ answer is part of why.

Not only does stopping to recognize and celebrate this small win lift my spirits and give me hope, it reminds me that this is something I value. Hopefully it will help me to view and respond to mistakes in this way more often. It’s not only my students who are used to being right who need me to help them use their mistakes positively, it’s all of my students.


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