Nepantla: The Space of Tensions in Teaching

When teachers say:  “I am a master, I’ve gotten teaching down, or I do an amazing job and don’t need any input,” it sends a red flag. Why? Because teaching–in all seriousness–is hard. And it is an under appreciated profession in our country.

Some of the best teachers I know, admit after teaching 20 to 30 years, they are still trying to figure out what is best for their students and are constantly open to new ideas and collaboration. These teachers are my idols. And I look up to them because in my mind as a young teacher, I am thinking: wow they have taught for so long yet they are still learning. These are working professionals who model life-long learning. As the student body in our classrooms are growing more and more diverse, we must be cognizant of the material we are presenting to them and the different learning opportunities we are providing for our students.

One of my current colleagues epitomizes the critical thinker and reflective practitioner as she constantly strives to figure out how to engage her students through replacing units with project based learning in the math classroom.

During my undergraduate years, my professor Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez presented the term: Nepantla. What does Nepantla mean? My colleague, Esther Song defines this term on our teacher community webpage of Nepantla Teachers Community:

“It is the the space of the middle.  In other words, it is the space of uncertainty, tension between truths, and “grey area”.  As mathematics teachers, we strive to learn in this space by reexamining our beliefs and questioning current models.  We assert that growing in Nepantla help us form critical perspectives to better prepare our students.”

What does Nepantla mean for teachers? Well this is the space of tensions when it comes to grading, teaching styles (indirect or direct instruction), student choice, real world application, content, globlal citizenship, 21st century learning ideas, collaboration, group work, the hidden curriculum, null curriculum, and in essence: teaching beyond the curriculum.

How should we grade and assess students? Right now the current buzzword is standards based grading, and through my experiences at the end of the day, grading in itself is subjective. But why do we grade students? Hopefully to provide feedback for them to help them improve, and not to document the days they complied in class aka work completion points. I am a firm believer that grades should reflect growth and understanding; not compliance–unless someone can convince me otherwise.

As a middle school mathematics teacher in her 5th year, I am constantly in a space of Nepantla when I am trying to help build the whole child–making sure my students learn how to communicate and collaborate effectively in groups and to advocate for themselves in addition to building executive functioning skills and learning content. I get my students for 80 minutes everyday, and I am know having them for a double block period has its pros and cons. On the one hand I have the luxury of time; on the other hand I know a 13-14 kid cannot sit still in a chair being lectured to for an entire duration of 80 minutes.

Moreover, teaching the Algebra curriculum, I find myself in a place where I am trying to find creative and meaningful opportunities for my students to learn while making sure they understand the Pythagorean Theorem and Quadratic Formula.

I admit, some days I feel that the lesson went along beautifully until I receive student exit slips. So what do I do with these exit slips? Reflect and figure out how it can inform the following lesson. I could use the exit slip as a warmup and have students try and fix their errors and discuss, I can use exit slips to figure out partners or targeted groupings.

All in all, being an educator means to be a reflective practitioner. Someone who is always trying and someone who is always learning new ideas. My heart goes out to all teachers. We have hard jobs. Sometimes we go home and think that we are failures, and that is okay. I feel like the best teachers are the hardest on themselves and if we are not critical of our own practices, what impact does it have on our students? Perpetuating an outdated school system through teaching practices and curriculum is within our control, so how can we begin redefining the norms?

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