My favorite question I ask strangers at conferences.

Hey all – I am sitting in a session the 2018 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) national conference in Washington DC with 9000+ math teachers from all over the world.  I am taking a moment out of my day to blog about my favorite parts of conferences, NETWORKING.

What I love most about conferences is meeting new math teachers and expanding my mathematics community.  I say this as in introvert.  If you know me, you may doubt this as I present as an extrovert. I present as an extrovert because from my first days of teaching I imagined myself putting on an invisible suit of confidence and outgoingness.  I faked my way through my first years of teaching that I was a bigger version of myself.  I was tapped to lead at an early age and I took deep breaths, stood taller and relaxed my shoulders as I told my inner self that ‘I could do this’. I’ve practiced being outgoing so long, that it now feels normal.  That said, when I return to my home at night, I crash exhausted from being engaged to people for so long – then I know for sure I am an introvert.

Despite my natural introverted tendencies, I know that I can not grow as a teacher without being in relationship with a community of mathematics teachers.  My community keeps me emotionally healthy.  My community challenges me.  My community gives me ideas.  My community stops me from isolating myself and depending solely on my own ideas.

The great news in 2018 for introverts like myself is there is a math community anyone can join any day of the year online.  If you are not on twitter do that and search hashtags #MTBoS and #iteachmath and start following people tweeting using these hashtags.  Even if you never tweet – you are now in this online community.  I am so happy to call you a part of my community.

This post is not about the online math community though.  This post is about building your community with 3-dimensional human beings.  Although I feel like I know people I interact online, meeting them in person is a game changer for me. So what do I do at conferences to build my math community even larger with people not online?  I do many things, but let me share just one….

I introduce myself to strangers.  If I am standing in line with someone, I introduce myself.  When I sit in a session, I don’t look for someone I know and sit by them, I sit down near others that I don’t know – often looking for someone sitting alone.  After saying Hi, I’m Sara, what’s your name?” and talking about where we are from (as we awkwardly squint read each others chests/name badges) and what we teach…, I then ask my favorite question at conferences for strangers.  I say…

Yes, yes I know – there are 3 questions above, but they are all the same question.  Sometimes I ask one, sometimes I am repetitive and ask all 3 at the same time.  2/3 of the people I ask, immediately smile and their face lights up.  They start talking in multiple sentences and paragraphs. I rarely have anyone say just a word and stop talking.  About a 1/3 of the time people hesitate and then apologize saying, “You know, that is a deep question.  I am going to have to think about that.”  I can see they are trying to get out of answering my question, but I just wait them out and I love the moment when their face lights up a bit and the precede to tell me about something great about their current practice.

I love hearing what they have to say, because often I learn about something new that I want to learn more about later or I am reminded of something I’ve wanted to do more of in my own practice.  I love the question, because people in our profession tend to be our own harshest critics and we are always thinking about what needs to be improved.  We rarely spend enough time celebrating what is going well or what energizes us in our work.  I always, always learn something.

If you are at a math conference – try this question out with at least 5 strangers.  See what happens.  See how it changes your conference experience.  Watch how it builds your math community.

Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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