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The Biggest Pet Peeve

• Mary Laura Bragg

I had coffee last weekend with a former student of mine who graduated in May and will begin teaching math and history today at the school she graduated from, and where I taught her.  She’s excited; I’m excited – and a bit envious of her, to be honest.  Although she didn’t ask for it, I gave her a few pieces of advice:

  • Get in good with the school secretary.  She’s the most important person in the school.
  • Make your math students write.  Every week.
  • When you have your students write for you, take the time to give them feedback – good feedback – about their writing.
  • Pick your biggest pet peeve and enforce your policy around it.  (Mine was tardies.  Don’t get me started.)  Let go of the small stuff that annoys you.

She immediately said, “Student dependency on calculators.  I taught an 8th grade math class this spring, and we are working on an algebra concept and I ask them what 5 times 12 is, and they reach for their calculator.  I’m like – whoa now – you have to be able to do that automatically.  Maybe look up at the ceiling and do it in your head, but no way should you need a calculator for this.  I’ll bet you if we walked across the courtyard to a 2nd grade classroom they could tell me without thinking.  Y’all are getting schooled by 2nd graders.”

So I asked if those kids had never had to learn their “times tables” (which created some incredibly tense times for my family when I was in 3rd grade), and she said that they were expected to learn them, but then they never had to use them.  And then she brought up Common Core State Standards.  She said that, as a high school teacher, she knows it will take a while for the kids who get that firm foundation in “math fluency” to make it to her classroom.  She is looking forward to getting those students because she’ll be able to teach the math she needs to teach in order to for them to be successful on the ACT and SAT.  She won’t have to stop and teach them skills she assumed they had mastered in elementary school.

And it struck me that until Common Core State Standards, students were lucky if they happened to get that teacher who knew what kids needed, and what they didn’t, to be successful.  That “finishing the textbook” means nothing if students haven’t mastered the skills IN the textbook.  That it is critical for students to master multiplication tables to automatically – in their heads.

Under CCSS, students will have to master addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and master it early, because they are going to have to use it in every math class going forward.  It’s expected of them, so that they don’t have to reach for the calculator on their phone. And because it is expected of all students, it will also be expected of all teachers.

Wouldn’t it be great to have an education system where the exception of that one great teacher becomes the rule?

About the author

Mary Laura Bragg

Mary Laura serves as the Interim Vice President of Advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. A former classroom teacher, Mary Laura directed Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative, Just Read, Florida! As director, she was responsible for crafting and implementing the policies that helped place a command focus on reading instruction in Florida. She has served on advisory groups on adolescent literacy for both the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Governors Association. She is also a member of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Advisory Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. Contact Mary Laura at