An Apology Letter to My Former Students

Dear Former Students,

I owe you all an apology. You see, I always thought I was a good teacher. Turns out, I could have been so much better…

As a math teacher, I have failed so many of you. Once upon a time I focused solely on the procedures. Teaching long division with “Divide, multiply, subtract bring down,” instructing you to divide fractions with keep, change flip!” eliciting the rounding chant, “five or above, give it a shove, four or less, let it rest,” and don’t even get me started on how I used to teach slope.

There is nothing inherently wrong with algorithms. They are super efficient and are worth knowing and learning. I was not wrong in teaching you how to use them. You should know them! Where I did fail, was in inspiring you to actually understand why algorithms worked and what it was you were really doing. Because let’s face it, you have likely forgotten how to use many of them now.

Guess what, I hadn’t considered those points at that time. Although I was labeled an excellent math student for a lot of my life in school, it turns out, that was a misrepresentation of the truth. If someone had a procedure for me to memorize, I had no problem. I was one of the fastest math fact people in my grade. But, what I didn’t learn to do in school was think about math in context. It never dawned on me that numbers were adjectives, not nouns. Learning how to add 3+4 should have always elicited a context of 3 THINGS + 4 THINGS. But it didn’t. This was not my math teacher(s)’ fault, because they didn’t know that was important either!

I have evolved in my teaching because I work in a profession with wonderful envisionaries. Mathematical gurus Robert Kaplinsky and Andrew Stadel both respond to my constant barrage of email inquiries. They have never met me, but have contributed to my transformation. Jo Boaler’s spoke to me through her book, but I have yet to see her in person. Dan Meyer showed me how to make math exciting, but I have never received professional development from him in the same room. Christine Tondevold is helping me go back to the basics so I can really see where I need to begin helping my students, but we have never physically crossed paths. Graham Fletcher is helping me teach my students how to decompose numbers. The point is, I didn’t realize that what I was doing wasn’t what I should have been doing. The moment I figured that out, was the moment I wanted to invite you all back to teach you all over again. 

Oprah is famous for saying, “When you know better, you do better.” I am in a constant state of trying to learn how to know better so I can do better. To paraphrase Christine Tondevold, I did the best with what I thought was the best at the time. Now I realize, I should have done things differently. So to my former students, I am so sorry I failed you.

And to my current students, I am sure I will continue to learn newer and better ways to teach and will owe you an apology in the future. Consider this payment in advance.

Most sincerely,

Dr. Polak


One thought on “An Apology Letter to My Former Students

  1. So nice to read your reflections here, Merryl. I think a lot of have that class we wish we could apologize to or do over. Third period precalculus 2007-2008 for me. Don’t ask! Happy to be learning here with you.


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