For Houston educators Terrance O’Neil and Tim Livingston, math is all about context.
Too often, they say, students give up on math because word problems feature information or elements students can’t relate with. One recent example that stumped students, Livingston said, was a math problem featuring a person purchasing an $85 thermal to go camping.
“Some of these kids have never been camping,” he said. “And they were confused. One girl asked what a thermal was and why would a person buy one for $85.”
So they say students, especially those from low-income families, often need context — or information they can relate too — to help them better connect equations to real-world problems.
“A student should be able to relate to the problem,” said Livingston, a math coach in the Spring Independent School District. “The context grants them access.”
Together O’Neil and Livingston represent one of the two teacher teams Chalkbeat readers chose to participate in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off. The live event, which debuts at the SXSW EDU conference March 7, is designed to elevate the craft of teaching and showcase the many decisions that go into just one lesson.
Each team of teachers will demonstrate a mini-lesson on stage in front of a panel of judges and a cheering audience. A lively discussion among judges, coaches, and the teacher teams following the lessons will help attendees “see” teaching with new, clearer eyes.
Before O’Neil and Livingston head to Austin, we caught up with them to discuss the Teach-Off and their teaching philosophy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What inspired you to go into teaching?
TIM: I guess I always had a knack for teaching. When I was in the military, I spoke to my wife and said, “I think this is something I want to do.” I love children. They were always drawn to me. And I could always communicate with them in a way they understood. Once I finished up my second enlistment, I went forward. And once I got into it, I saw what I wanted to be true, came true.
TERRANCE: The initial push came from my parents. I grew up in one of the roughest communities in Houston. They continually pushed us to get a good education. It was a nonnegotiable. They believed it was key to escape the community we grew up in. Once I left the community — because of education — I knew I needed to go back to that same community to help. I went back to my former community as a teacher. I fell in love with the kids. I learned quickly how one teacher can change the perspective of a student who might not get any sort of positive reinforcement when he leaves the school.
How would you describe your teaching style or method?
TIM: When I first began teaching, I would give out all the energy. My students would point out how my armpits would sweat. It was high energy, 24/7. But as I matured as an educator, I’ve learned to let it not all come from me, but put it in the mathematical task.
TERRANCE: I try to demonstrate that I’m passionate about the content — math or science. I always try to start with some sort of real-world connections. And I feed into that. I want to see the students excited about what they’re learning. Depending on the demographics of your class, you learn to use different real-world connections. I want them to do the work. To get them do that, I have to demonstrate some passion first.
Why did you want to be part of the Teach-Off?
TERRANCE: Probably because we think we’re better than any everyone else. [Laughs]
TIM: Next question! Honestly, I was intrigued by the vision of what Chalkbeat was trying to do. It got me hook, line, and sinker. Teaching is an art. And to hear that someone understands it’s an art and craft, I said, “This is it.” And my heart is for mathematics.
How were your schools affected by Hurricane Harvey?
TERRANCE: We had well over 100 students that lost everything. Everything. The devastation affected us severely. It was dramatic for a while. But our kids are resilient. Some are still displaced. But the district has done an excellent job of serving these students. They’ve done things that I wouldn’t have expected them to do. Some students had to move to outside the district, into other suburbs. And our district sent buses to get them so they wouldn’t have to switch schools. Not to mention, the district and many campuses have developed grant programs to serve those families. Here at McNabb, we’re still helping families with food and clothes. It’s been something amazing to watch.
What do you expect the audience to see at the Teach-Off?
TIM: Everything! All of it! They should expect laughter, energy. I love impromptu. That’s one of my strengths. So the whole notion of the event that something is going to change, that doesn’t make me nervous. That brings me in.
TERRANCE: That genuine love for teaching. Sincerity. That passion. And of course that content. You have to be passionate, and you have to be teaching something.
TIM: They can expect a demonstration of the depths of what it takes to teach mathematics correctly. It’s more than just adding and subtracting. It takes effort to plan to teach and reflect, and that’s what I love about this.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received regarding teaching?
TIM: The issue is never mechanical, it’s adaptive. Meaning, there is no fix that someone can prescribe to me that does not consider my students, the school we’re in, the story that is our classroom. Every problem is adaptive. I can’t go find an answer. I have to collaborate with teachers and students. All those things have to be considered.
TERRANCE: My first superintendent would tell us all the time, “If you are really teaching how you’re supposed to teach and what you’re supposed to teach, it will be seen in the learning in students.” Your success is not what you do as a teacher, but what your students can do after they’ve been with you for a year. That difference there, that determines how effective I am as a teacher.