Teacher Stories Episode 1 - Textbook Trouble with Mike Flynn


Welcome to Teacher Stories. My name is Denis Lantsman. I am a software engineer at a small education company called Desmos. As part of my job I go to conferences and visit classrooms. I am very lucky, because in the course of my work I get to meet many educators and hear their stories.
I decided to record some of these stories, because I think that stories are powerful. If you’re a teacher, I hope they will allow you to feel solidarity in a profession that often feels isolated. If the last time you set foot in a classroom was when you were a student, I hope these stories will help you imagine what it’s like on the other side.
In this first episode we will hear about a district adopting a new math textbook — a usual event that happened in a rather unusual way. I like this story because it illustrates the role of power in education. There are many decisions that are made every day that affect teachers and their students. Who makes those decisions, and how do they go about making them? Here’s the interview.


Denis: I am here with Mike. Mike, welcome to the podcast. To start with, why don’t you tell us about who you are, for people who are not familiar with your work?
Mike: Sure. My name is Mike Flynn, I’m the director of math leadership programs at Mount Holyoke College. We run a graduate program, a masters of arts in teaching mathematics for kindergarten through 8th grade math teachers who want to be either really good math teachers or teacher leaders in formal roles or informal roles, or even want to work at the national level. And we do that online. So we have some people who are on campus, some people attend online, but it’s all live streamed. The best way I can describe it is that it’s online learning that doesn’t feel like online learning. Before that I taught 2nd grade for 14 years. I really developed my love of math and teaching math then. I actually went into teaching not loving math, and I learned to love it through my work as a teacher.
Denis: Can you tell us something about yourself that doesn’t have to do with math or education?
Mike: OK, so a random fact here. How about, my great-great-great… -great I don’t know how many greats it is grandmother was hanged for being a witch in the Salem witch trials. Martha Carrier.
Denis: Oh no way! Is her name listed among the graves?
Mike: It is! Actually, PBS did a special on her, you can read about her trial. She actually admonished the entire court during it, like she went down fighting the whole way.
Denis: So you have a history of insubordination
Mike: Yes, exactly. It’s in my blood.
Denis: This can segue us into the story. Could you tell us a bit about where in your teaching career you were when this happened?
Mike: So I had been teaching for about 7 or 8 years at that time. So enough experience under my belt to feel like I had credibility, and I had enough sway with colleagues and stuff. I was kind of just beginning my work at the national scale with professional learning and mathematics. I was starting to explore working with teachers and adult learners.
Denis: Could you tell us about the sort of school you were working at? Was it a private or a public school, etc?
Mike: It was a public school. Kind of suburban / rural, at the same time it was a farming community that blew up into like a… all these housing developments. The farm land was being sold off. So we had a bunch of little suburban cul-de-sac communities. It was one school, part of a regional school district. So my town had the one elementary school with about 500 students in it, but we had other towns that we all sent our students to the same high school. A regional high school. Fairly small, I think in total one class might have 800 people in it.
Denis: What was your relationship with the other teachers in your school and your district? Were you aware of their existence, or were you in your classroom doing your own thing?
Mike: It’s funny how schools work. It depends on the leader. We had some principals who, with the absence of good leadership, created what is known as a balkanized system. So we had one principal one time who just - the way she lead or didn’t lead - created pockets of people that sort of banded together, depending on how they felt about certain issues. So some years we were “cliquey” in a way. There were the people who thought that recess should be 30 minutes instead of 15 minutes, or people that thought that math should be taught this way instead of that way. So around decisions people started grouping into factions and, and it wasn’t a great feeling. I’d say those were unhealthier times for us. But then under different leadership, we banded together. We sort of developed a unified idea for what we wanted to do as a school, where we wanted students to go. And we found good compromise, and that was facilitated by really good leaders.
Denis: And this was all in the same school?
Mike: All in the same school. We had four different administrators in my time there. Some lasted just a few years, and the one I went out on was the absolute best one. He was an amazing leader, and pulled that whole school together.
Denis: That’s quite the churn for leadership at a school. I think that’s pretty common. Do you have a sense of why that happens?
Mike: It’s a tough job. I think there’s a lot of pressures. You can’t make everyone happy. I think actually what happens is — there’s probably some invisible sand timer that when you’re hired as principal, someone flips it over. And as the sand falls through I kind of see that as different people falling off your fan base. Because you start to make decisions and then you make some people happy, and some people unhappy. And then you lose some of those people. Then you make another decision, and I think over the course of years, after you make a bunch of decisions you wipe out the folks who are supporting you. There’s a lot of pressure. It’s just kind of how I see it. Because, I didn’t mention this in my introduction, but I also was a member of our school board in the town where I lived. So I was an elected member for 8 years. I got to work with the administrators, but from that point of view, not as a teacher, but from a school committee. And I could see the same thing, same pressures that they were under. And you could see people like, over time just the letters and the complaints and stuff would build up and then we’d find out that they’re leaving. You can only take that for so long, before you just feel beaten up.
Denis: Yeah, so maybe even if they’re being a good leader, and they’re doing a good job, just the constant criticism… I imagine when you’re a principal there are few sources of validation. Because nobody really knows what you’re doing in the school. There’s all these criticisms, and you might feel like you’re doing a terrible job, but in fact you’re actually doing well.
Mike: It’s a thankless job, I think. And another piece is the upward mobility. Some people become a school leader so that they can eventually go work in a central office, so they can eventually become a district leader and so on. So I think that also happens, that you get people who are climbing — people do a lateral move to a different positions since they’ve exhausted their influence. Other people are climbing up the ladder.
Denis: So, I guess this is maybe interesting transition to the beginning of the story. I think what happened was that you got a new superintendent.
Mike: Yeah, she came in — and I think a common thing that happens when you’re a leader — you come in and you may have an agenda, or an initiative where you need to make your mark. I think one thing that there’s a lot of pressure on. You need to make a difference. So in this case, our math scores weren’t great in the district. To provide some context, we had been using the Investigations math curriculum, which can be kind of controversial. Unfortunately, because I find it to be…. I think it’s really amazing curriculum, but it requires teachers to develop a deeper conceptual understanding of the math. The things that you can do with that curriculum are really powerful. The kind of understanding my second graders would get from those experiences was really strong. But. It wasn’t used uniformly throughout. There were whole grade bands that weren’t using it at all. So, we were called an “Investigations District”, but I would say we had less than 50% of people actually using it. And of those 50% using it, half of them had been trained and actually gotten professional learning. So the scores I don’t think — I know — were not reflective of the curriculum and how that was being used. It’s just a reflection of a jumbled mess of scope and sequence there. So she came in and like, with consultation with the existing assistant superintendent decided that the curriculum — the program is the problem. And that they’re going to get rid of it.
Denis: So for you, in your classroom. You were happy with the curriculum. And you were seeing good results with it?
Mike: Yeah.
Denis: How did you actually find out about these plans to change everything?
Mike: It was a professional development day, which you usually get some kind of learning there. We were all called to the cafeteria, and chairs were all set up in rows, and we were told to come in and sit down. They passed out a test for us. Basically it was a couple of 8th grade math problems. We were told to complete them in silence and then we had to go pass them in. It was like being in school again. We just had all these memories of being in 3d grade and handing your paper up to the teachers in the front of the room. They were actually grading them as they got them — started writing on them and sorting them into two piles. Folks that got them right and who got them wrong, and you could figure out which one was which. So then you could start seeing which teachers when they handed them in got put into one pile or another. Oh, she got it wrong, he got it right. Yeah, I have to say right there we were like “What the hell is going on here?”
Denis: Do you remember how you were feeling?
Mike: I was pretty fired up actually. At that point math was my thing and I had been doing professional learning for math. I was a national consultant to train for the Investigations math curriculum. I got really involved with them because I loved the math, and I loved helping teachers relearn math. So I was watching the way they were making people feel and we would never do that students. And here I am watching our administration do that to colleagues. I was pretty fired up. You could see hives breaking out. It just didn’t feel good at all.
Denis: There must have been some real tension.
Mike: There was. Just everything was uncomfortable. Then they held up the stack of papers that were wrong and said,
“This is why we’re making this change. We’re changing the curriculum. We’re getting rid of Investigations. We’re going to get a textbook that’s a teacher-proof textbook. Everyone’s going to be on the same page, because if you can’t pass an 8th grade math test then you shouldn’t be making these kind of decisions.”
And it was just a punch in the gut for everybody. Whether you liked investigations or you didn’t, I think just being treated like that was so disrespectful. And he was going for shock value. It was the assistant superintendent who did it, and he was going for shock value. He wanted to make his point. But he did it by publicly shaming people, right? And that just… what he did in that moment was create a whole group of adversaries.
I actually just gave a talk this morning about this idea. There’s research — this guy named Bob Burr discusses that there are two ways that you can get people to go along with what you want. You can do it through force, or you can do it through persuasion. So they chose force. They just shamed us, said “This is what you’re doing, and that’s why you’re doing it. Because you can’t pass this 8th grade math test”. So then, if you use force the best thing you can get out of it is compliance. But the worst is that you’re going to get sabotage. You’re going to get people who work against it — resistance and stuff. They fired up the hornets nest when they did that.
Denis: For people who are listening to this that might not be teachers, I have a couple of clarifying questions — what is a teacher-proof curriculum?
Mike: So what they thought was that if teachers don’t know the math, that they need a curriculum that is scripted enough that if a teacher could just read the words on the page and the kids will learn. That regardless of what the teacher does, sort of like — the teacher is basically a conduit for whatever is written in the textbook, and what experience the kids have. So that was the idea. This is a way we can ensure that in our regional district the 3d grade teacher in this town is teaching what the 3d grade teacher in the other town is doing, and the kids are getting the same experience. In a lot of ways their effort was partly to get rid of this issue of some teachers not being strong in math, which is a reality in elementary school anyway. So that was a way to deal with it. Like a textbook will just fix that problem. But the other thing was that it’s just easier for them for reporting. If the state ever asks “What’s going on in 3d grade in your district”, they could say “well they’re all on page 92”. And that was an easy out for them for accountability.
Denis: What is the problem with just having everyone read from the book? It seems like it makes teaching easier, the administration is happy.
Mike: It makes the teacher’s job easier, because it’s easier to read a script, and it’s easier to not actually have to understand what kids know. It’s easier to just create papers and say “You’re right or you’re wrong. Try harder”. Right? But teaching is not an easy job. If you get into education and look at making teaching easy you’re in the wrong field. Working with humans and making humans learn is a very complex and complicated job, if you’re going to do it well. A good teacher is very responsive to their students. All of their students. If they have a class of 30, 20… doesn’t matter how many kids you have. A teacher should be an expert on each and every one of those kids, and know what they can and can’t do. Where their strength are. How to use those strengths to move them forward in their learning. If you’re teaching from a script then you’re basically just teaching to the middle. Most curriculum that’s written like that is very directed. They’re trying to think “What is a typical 2nd grader do?” And this is how a typical 2nd grader will experience this. It doesn’t take into account the kid who’s thinking at a 5th grade level, or a kid that’s thinking at a kindergarten level. And so there’s no room for differentiation. There’s no room for extensions to push kids thinking. And, it often makes math more about what the teacher does — the performance of teaching — versus providing learning experiences for kids to discover some of these ideas. And that’s really, for me, the power of math. If a child can discover why a certain procedure works, or why a certain way to attack a problem is better. That they’re going to own that a lot longer than if I just say “here’s how I want you to do the problem now practice it”.
Denis: OK, so you were in this “pop quiz”. What happened in the rest of the professional development?
Mike: So that was it. That was the day. We left. We were told a little bit about how it would unfold. So they said that in grades 3–6 for year 1 would get the new textbooks, and in K-2 would be year 2 we’d get it. So they’d start with that roll out, and that was pretty much it. We were sent on our way and that’s when we all got into our little pockets and so that the little balkanized system there, where you have pods of teachers. And the majority of teachers I would say did not want a textbook teacher-proof curriculum. Not everyone was confident with Investigations, but not everyone had enough professional learning. But people liked the curriculum, and they were getting better at it. And those that didn’t like the curriculum — they were happy. So we had a smaller pocket of teachers who were excited about this textbook thing, because math wasn’t their thing. Now you’ve taken this stress out of their way. So we just started to plan — what do we do about this?
Denis: What did that process actually look like? Did you meet under bridges?
Mike: In hallways, in the teacher room, and in each others rooms. We would just shut the door. At first, I think that you go through the sort of natural thing that humans do — we’re all reacting. We’re having emotional reactions to this. People are fired up, so we’re just throwing out these ideas of like —we’re going to storm the castle. We’re going to tell the school board this. It was very — we had a very negative way of approaching it. Like we wanted to out the superintendent. Publicly shame her and the assistant superintendent. Just because you’re reacting.
Denis: You were upset.
Mike: Yeah.
Denis: Because you had just been embarrassed, and that seems like a very natural reaction.
Mike: So the interesting thing with our district was that there were about 30 teachers in the country who would fly around the country in the summertime and train people to use this curriculum because they knew it so well and they had a reputation in the math world. Of the 30 that do that in the country, 4 of them were in my district. So my colleague across the hall and myself were two of them. And then 2 of the other schools we had colleagues that were also doing this work. So if you think about that — 4 people in this one district who are paid to fly to other parts of the country to help their teachers be better math teachers — were now in this situation being told that we had to teach out of a textbook. You can imagine that we had a vested interest in this because we were seeing what worked in other states where they had great investment in professional learning and we saw schools moving kids along successfully because they were deepening the teachers content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. And then in our own district they were throwing out all this good research and all of these good ideas and then just going back to a basic textbook and it was crushing us.
Denis: I think people might be surprised that a decision like that could be taken without really the knowledge or consent. Did you know that this was happening at all?
Mike: Not at all. We were all sort of blown away by it. We knew math was on the docket, and we were kind of excited because we agreed that we all could use professional learning, even us. I constantly see how I can keep learning the math for myself so we wanted that. We were thirsty for it. So that’s what we thought we were getting. We were just shocked.
Denis: So, the first reaction is anger. What is the next stage?
Mike: So then logic comes in. We start thinking — what’s the move here? If we approach it this way, what’s going to happen. If we approach it that way, what’s going to happen? We started to understand why. What are the reasons they would make this decision? We started looking at administrative pressure and considering that. We started to see things from their side a bit to understand why they would make this decision. Then we decided that we’re going to respectfully make people aware of what’s going on. So we decided not to go with the anger route. We wanted to make an impact in this. What we decided to do was to begin to build a coalition.
Part of it was that we knew that there was the “math group”. We all would go do math professional learning together. We’d meet after school and talk about student thinking and all of that. So we kind of knew we had each others back. But then there’s lots of other teachers for who we don’t know where they fall on this. So we decided to start asking people. We would have conversations and find out how people felt and people were pretty fired up, but didn’t feel as empowered as we did because of our math experience. So they didn’t know what to do and didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. So we started to let people know that there’s a whole group of us. There’s a lot of us — a good 80% of the staff felt this way. Once we started sharing that there’s a lot of people who are feeling this way and that a few of us were willing to stick our necks out for this, we got this ground swell of grassroots movement of like — this can’t happen.
So ultimately we weren’t thinking that — we want to keep our curriculum and we want to just invest in professional learning, we’re just going to tell them to stop the decision. What we wanted them to do was to involve teachers in the process. So that’s our point. We can’t make it about Investigations because we’re Investigations workshop leaders. People are going to say “Oh, they have outside interest in this”. So we said let’s make this about the lack of teacher voice in the decision.
So we wrote public letters to the superintendent but then gave a copy to all the school board members and every school committee. We met with parents. We hosted math nights. We met with staff. We went to school committee. And we just kept raising this issue that teachers weren’t consulted. Teachers are the experts. We had the ear of a lot of school board members who were pretty appalled at what happened. When we did things publicly we did things very professionally. “Dear Dr. So and so, I disagree with you on this I would love to consider conversation” all that nice sort of stuff. One-on-one with school board members we’d tell them like it is. We had some committee members who we knew well enough that we could be frank with them and say “This is what went down” and we fired them up.
Denis: Another clarifying question — what’s the relationship between the school board and the school?
Mike: School committee or the school board’s job is basically to set policy and set the budget. They approve the budget and then they supervise the superintendent. Those are the three main functions there. Superintendent is the executive of the district and principals are the executives of each building and the board oversees the superintendent. And we set the budget, and I say we because I was on the school board. Adopting a curriculum is a school board vote. They eventually vote for the funds for that. They are part of that process there. We went to them knowing that — because they oversee the superintendent we could say “Hey, here’s what she did to us, this is how she handled this process. She’s now angered a whole bunch of your teachers and it’s affecting the whole school”. So then that’s going to cause the superintendent to have to respond because we went to her superiors.
Denis: I want to loop back to something that you mentioned earlier which is that you had some teachers who were reluctant or didn’t really know what to do. You said that you were willing to “stick out your neck”. That communicates that there’s a certain amount of risk and of retaliation or something like that. What would you say people were worried about and why was this such a risk?
Mike: As a teacher — I’ll be honest — you feel powerless as a teacher a lot of the time. It’s funny now — I’ve had a lot of different experiences at different levels of education now so when I look back I sometimes chuckle when I think about how powerless I felt. How intimidated I used to be if a principal walked into my room. How intimidated I was by superintendents. I remember the first time I ever presented to a school committee which was for my graduate degree. I had to do, like, an assignment I had to present to a committee and I remember shaking.
There’s that feeling — it’s authority I think. You can feel powerless because as a teacher you’re way down on that chain of command. You got the school board overseeing things, the superintendent, assistant superintendent, central office administrators, principals, vice principals, and then you’re the teacher. Right? So it feels like “Who am I as this one voice to do anything?”. You also know that — if you haven’t been working there for 3 years and you haven’t made professional status, you could just be let go for any reason. If you had professional status there you still could — if you ruffle feathers — that things might be more difficult for you. Things might be put in your file. All of this stuff. It feels like there could be some retaliation.
I was fortunate to have a teachers union, so you’re protected by that. We had a little bit of backing, but there are plenty of schools and teachers in this country that don’t have that kind of representation. For them that’s a huge risk if you pulled some of the stuff that we pulled with this group that some people could have gotten fired. We weren’t in that jeopardy there, but there’s still something scary about putting yourself out there. Signing the letter and then sending it out to the newspaper and stuff. Those things are pretty edgy as a teacher.
Denis: You mentioned that because you had a union and you had professional status. I guess “tenure” is equivalent?
Mike: Yeah
Denis: You felt confident that you wouldn’t be let go. Was there anything else that made you feel empowered to risk things?
Mike: For this issue, expertise. At that point I had done years of my own learning in math. I got deep learning, with some of the biggest thought leaders in math education. I had a lot of knowledge and understanding under my belt. So I felt I knew what I was talking about. I wouldn’t feel the same about every subject because as a generalist — as an elementary teacher you teach every subject, so you can only dedicate a lot of your professional learning to like so many things a year. I did a deep dive in math, so I felt like I had that, where some of my colleagues felt like they didn’t have enough knowledge to be able to articulate at a school board meeting if someone says “well why this over that?”. It was harder for them to explain that. We could do that really well — my colleagues and I.
Denis: You said you served on the school board. Was that prior to this?
Mike: You can’t be on a school board in a school that you work at or the district you work in. My home town I was on the school board there and I worked in a different town. It was a different school board. But because I was also on the school board already for Northampton where I live, I think that gave me a little bit more empowerment because I had that other perspective of the leadership structure, and what people’s roles are. I could never imagine anyone in Northampton pulling that — like trying to do the same thing that happened for us. I think that gave me this sense of empowerment to say “This is not cool. This needs to be called out”.
Denis: For someone who is not really involved with the administration. They know “I have my principal and the superintendent. They do something”. They don’t know all the mechanics of oversight and who does what, or what the possibilities are. It can be really scary too. You have no idea what will happen when things actually go down.
Mike: Exactly, and we had issues in Northampton too so sometimes people would be confident enough to come and tell me something and make me aware of something that’s going on that’s not out publicly, but I as a school board member — you don’t have the authority to step in. That’s not our role. But we could follow up with the administration and say “I’m hearing this”. And ask what’s happening. And you realize that the one voice, talking to me, made something happen. Because I could follow up and then sometimes there was something happening that shouldn’t be happening and it was fixed because someone was brave enough to come and talk to me. I think being on the other side of that helped me realize that the school board are just people. Everyone has the best interests in mind of making sure we have a school that provides for students. So if there’s something awry it helps to advocate for that. So I saw the power of that when I was on the school board so I used that where I was.
Denis: So how did things go down, once you set things in motion?
Mike: So we did it respectfully, and I actually had a meeting with the superintendent. I know they had pressure from the school board. They had to convene a group of teachers and the decision to adopt a textbook was going to be up to the committee of teachers that she picks. She says she’s going to go along with that.
But she did point out to me in a meeting with just the few of us that the reason that she’s doing this is because we were respectful of her. We could have handled this very differently. So I’ll give her the credit — she recognized that we didn’t throw her under the bus per se. Every letter that we wrote, everything that we said just talked about the facts. We didn’t name-call. We didn’t do anything to disparage her.
Something that I’ve learned after the fact, as I’ve studied this now. We preserved her ego in a way. That’s a big piece with change process. If you want to get someone on your side, you can’t do it by damaging their self-worth. We preserved that for her and she was able to save face. At the same time, she had to address the things that we brought up because we did it in a way that made logical sense too. So she agreed.
But there was a little wrinkle, because the assistant superintendent — a lot of it was his agenda — they decided they were going to convene this committee to make the decision, and I was one of the members on it, and only a couple of my colleagues who do the math work were picked. The rest of the committee were the very few — that 20% of teachers — that wanted the textbook. And so they basically “gave in” in a way. They did this public thing that says “yes we’re going to have this teacher committee” and everyone congratulated us and we were all happy. And when we showed up and we walked in, they stacked the deck. So if the vote happened right away, the majority of people there were textbook supporters. So we thought — what are we going to do now?
The way they set it up was that they said it was our decision. They would leave us with all of these materials to look at. We’re there the whole day, and they’ll come back at the end of the day and they want a decision. That’s how they left it. It surprises me now that they left us and closed the door. We had a lunch break and that’s about it. But they weren’t part of the process at all. They didn’t sit and watch the deliberations and all that. It made me think that — again my brain’s watching that happen — why would they not even be there? Well, because they stacked the deck. So they were expecting that the textbook people are just going to walk all over us, and that’s the end of it. They will come back and get the textbook they want.
Denis: that begs the question — why do that? They pushed this policy. You as the experts in math, and also teaching, pushed back and said “maybe we shouldn’t do things this way” in a very respectful way. At that point, why stack the deck? Why do all of this sort of stuff. Why not just say “Oh. We made a mistake. The teachers obviously think so. Why don’t we try this again?”.
Mike: It was a power play. They still wanted their initiative. We did the respectful playbook. We started to build support from school board members and parents. We even tried to build support for our case from them. But they saw us as resistors. My principal at the time was really supportive of us. He was one of the ones on our side. But he actually told me afterwards that they would call him up and say “Get Mike under control!”. They hated the fact that we were doing this. And he told me when this was all going down “Keep doing what you’re doing”. Which is really cool. That’s a leader. He saw through it too, and so he supported me. Not openly, he had to protect himself there, But in a way that just let me know that he had my back and I was doing the right thing. So I think what happened was that we created a scenario where they had to make this decision and they didn’t like it. They still wanted what they wanted so they just stacked the deck. To me the evidence that they knew it was stacked was that they didn’t sit there for the deliberations. They knew the outcome.
So we quickly talked before we all started to work — me and my two colleagues — how do we handle this now? There is a line in the sand, they’re on one side, we’re on the other. We can’t just tell them what we think. They knew our experience and stuff, but my guess from knowing some of them was that some of them weren’t really strong in math. There were reasons why they wanted the textbook and it wasn’t because they had all of this experience in math learning and know that that’s the best way to teach. It’s a safe way to teach. We understood that, so we thought the way we need to play this is we need to figure out what’s going on for each and every one of them, and then work to help them see how the textbook is not going to help them with that piece that they’re concerned about.
So we just spent the time talking. Instead of talking as a whole group, we just spent some time looking through things together and then I would talk to like one of the colleagues and say “So, what is it that you don’t like about Investigations?” “Why is it that the textbook is really exciting to you?”. The reasons that they started to give weren’t mathematical. It wasn’t because “Well the research says that kids learn best when you just tell them what to do”. It was more like “Well I haven’t thought about these ideas in a long time, and with Investigations I have to figure out the math myself and I don’t have time to do that so it’s easier to have an answer key in the back of the book”.
What we started to realize from these conversations was that we could help them to see all of the supporting resources that were in Investigations, but also help them to see why it’s important for them to actually understand the math yourself because that one way to solve the problem is not how any kid should be learning. It’s not one way or the highway with this. It’s our jobs as teachers to understand that.
We started to get a sense of what people’s hangups were, and sometimes it was something like that. Sometimes it was “there’s not enough technology”. So we said “let’s look at what tech we can bring in here”. Sometimes people would say “it takes too much professional learning”. So we started to look at how can we work on some of these challenges.
Then we started to do some math together. Just to have them see the power of needing a visual representation. None of them had operated in base 5 before, and they couldn’t do it until they had the sticks and little cubes and things. So now you’ve got these people who are saying that we just need to show the kids the algorithm building what 24 + 18 is, and counting on their fingers and stuff. But then realizing how much they needed that as a learner. So we gave them some of these experiences to help them understand how kids learn.
Because of that, over the course of the day we basically got people to recognize that the hangups weren’t related to the curriculum. It’s really about what knowledge and skills they have as teachers, and that there’s a lot for all of us to learn. Then we started opening textbooks and they could see all of these algorithmic-based books where it just says “show the kids this” “tell them this”. When they thought to the base-5 experience they thought “If we learn that way, this base 5 system we would have been sunk. We would have had this fragile understanding of it.” Then we looked at Investigations and a few other ones that were more student centered, problem-based. They could start to see how the activities and the resources that were built in. How that was there to deepen their conceptual understanding and develop their procedural fluency at the same time. So now they start to see the value of one over the other. More importantly, they saw that we all need to get better at math and teaching math. So by the end we had a unanimous decision that we wanted to keep what we had and take that money and spend it on professional learning.
The one who was the most vocal supporter of that whole approach, he was on board with us as well. So we decided to have him be the spokesperson when the superintendent came back. I will never forget this for the rest of my life. They’ve come walking in. The assistant superintendent says “all right, so have you made a decision?”. And this guy says “yes, we have. We want to keep what we currently have and we want to spend this money on professional learning”. And he looked directly at me with this just anger and shock at the same time.
He actually asked me to stay afterwards. After we talked and decided “OK I guess we’re doing this”. He asked “Can you stick around Mike for a second?”. Everyone left and I thought uh-oh I’m in trouble. I don’t know how he knew that I was sort of the ringleader there, but he just said “I gotta hand it to you. I did not think this committee would go that direction. You obviously made that happen and I underestimated you”. That was it. Kind of a backhanded compliment or something.
I left there so happy. For a lot of reasons. There’s sort of an injustice in how they handled things. I think it was handled poorly. Instead of all of us working together to unify something, to get everyone on board they created rifts. There were still people who weren’t on the committee who wanted textbook math, and now they’re mad. It just makes for unhealthy working conditions. I’m very in tune to justice, in any capacity. When I see any kind of injustice it makes me… I just get fired up and I want to do something about it. This was a case where we did something about it and we actually achieved what we wanted. To have him say it — it was almost like a movie. To have him say “you know what, I didn’t think you’d do that”. It’s almost like you couldn’t write that. I look back now thinking “how in the world did we pull that off?”. It was empowering.
Denis: It strikes me as amusing that they put these educators who were traveling around doing professional development for this curriculum in a room with people who wanted a textbook largely for the reason that they haven’t received professional development for the curriculum. So you sort of did an impromptu session.
Mike: That’s exactly what we did.
Denis: And then they were all like “Oh yeah, we should do more of that. Great”.
Mike: It’s funny — I’m convinced from all of my time doing all of this work that if people want to make a difference in math it doesn’t start from the materials. The materials are the tools. If you think of like craftsmen, craftswomen. If a woman makes furniture and she wants to get better at making furniture she doesn’t do that by buying new tools. Sometimes new tools will help. If she has an old saw that’s not working. If she wants to be a better furniture maker, she needs to learn from others that are doing things differently.
That’s how we effect change. The same in math, you want to change math scores don’t give them a new book. Change their craft first. Schools will do these textbook adoptions. They buy new textbooks. Scores don’t do anything. They might go up a little, might go down a little, but nothing significant. And then 3 to 5 years later they say — oh it’s not working, so we need to do something — so they get a new textbook. They don’t spend time to invest in the learning of the teachers. And that is, I think, the single biggest thing that we can do to make a difference.
Denis: So I guess now you are someone who teaches leadership to other teachers. What have you taken forward from that experience?
Mike: Every one of our graduate students learns that story as one example of teacher voice and advocacy. We as teachers sometimes feel, as I said, powerless because we are a voice. The collective voice of teachers is a powerful entity. We all suffer as teachers from impostors syndrome where we think we don’t have the skills to be doing these leadership roles. You have to get over that, because the teacher voice is the most informed in terms of what’s needed at the classroom level. They’re in the front lines doing that work, and yet when you look at where decisions get made it’s by people who often haven’t taught.
We have school boards that are made up of non-educators. In Massachusetts we had this huge ed-reform movement where they had 18 stakeholders in public education to design the next 10 years of math. They originally had no teachers on that. Like none. You realize that if we don’t speak up, then these outside voices are going to have all of the say. They’re going to make these kind of decisions like what happened with us. When you’re empowered and you speak up, you can make sure that we’re doing what’s right for kids.
Denis: What would be your advice about how to get started?
Mike: That’s a good question. I think that the first piece of advice I would probably give people is to get informed. A lot of times we’re so busy as teachers that we don’t even pay attention to the policy world. Whether it’s a school-level, district level, state or national level, there are decisions being made right now. Right now, today! That are going to effect you and your students for a long time in the future. And we’re so focused sometimes on our work with kids that we don’t trouble ourselves with the policy work, because that’s for other people. But those decisions eventually make their way to our doorstep. So what we need to do is get informed, learn what’s happening.
Then, if you’re not in favor of that begin talking, share this information and begin to advocate. Even on a small level, one on one with school board members is a really great way to do that at a local level. Even calling politicians and advocating for that is a nice, easy way to raise your voice. I can say as a former elected official, it sometimes feels useless to call in and leave a message or send an email, like “what’s my one voice going to do?”. I’m telling you that any voicemail I heard, any letters — the more I got of those around an issue made me realize I need to look at this closer. So when I look at my email and see that there are 17 messages against this idea, it tells me I need to pay more attention to this idea. So we sometimes feel powerless in this world, so my advice would be to just — no matter how small you think your voice is, it actually makes a big difference. It does hit people’s radars. You just have to do it.
Denis: If people are interested in learning more about leadership and taking one of your classes, where can they find you?
Mike: They can find me at If anyone’s interested in any of this kind of work, we have single classes for teacher leaders. We also have classes in mathematics. If you’re really looking to develop your skills in this world of math and math leadership, our graduate program does that. We produce math leaders is what we’re trying to do. You can email me at or just go to our website and find my contact there, and let me know. I’m happy to chat with you.
Denis: OK, thanks Mike.
Mike: Thank you. Take care, Denis.


Welcome back.
What strikes me the most in this, and in many other stories that I will be sharing with you, is how the administration acted towards teachers. The superintendent and assistant superintendent unilaterally decided to push a new textbook. They did this without the vaguest idea about what was going on in the classrooms in their district, since only half of the teachers actually used the existing curriculum, and most never received training to implement it. And let me remind you that they received no training in a district with four nationally-saught-after coaches in that very curriculum.
Why did these administrators completely disregard the knowledge and expertise so easily available to them? Why did they choose to shame their own employees into obedience? And when the teachers objected, why persist in pushing through this ill-formed idea, instructing principals to get teachers “under control” and stacking a committee vote?
It really boggles the mind. To me, it communicates an utter lack of respect for the teaching profession. A disregard for the expertise of people actually doing the work of teaching.
Mike and his colleagues prevailed. They had the privilege of being nationally recognized experts, and having the ear of school board members. They were brave, even so, to risk their careers. They were lucky, many times over, that things worked out in their favor. They did all of this in evenings and weekends, on top of their teaching jobs.
And it shouldn’t be this hard. Is it any wonder that so many teachers feel powerless in their profession? Administrators should be seeking out teacher voices and working to empower their teachers, and teachers should have recourse to hold administrators accountable.
In the meanwhile, I hope this story inspires you to seek out your little bit of justice, no matter the odds.