Lessons in Priorities from Fifth Grade Math Girls

I spent this past Saturday in a school gym as a team of four, spunky, fifth grade girls, one my daughter, competed against themselves and math standards in a Math Olympiad with some 2000 kids all over the state of Washington. I had four smart, diligent, athletic, creative girls choose to spend 2-4 hours a week, three months straight, doing math for fun. With a mom (me). And they blew my mind.

I am a math coach. I didn’t see that coming.

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Full disclosure? There were days they made me crazy for talking over one another and not staying on task. There were days they made me laugh. There were days I barely made it. There were days I was ill-equipped, actually unable to solve the math I was asking of them. We would leave a problem half-finished, and hopefully come back to it the next session, after I consulted with a willing friend with a PhD in Biomechanics and a high tolerance for my indignance that fifth graders really did need the Pythagorean Theorem to solve that problem.

It was occasionally inconvenient as a self-employed mom - and I’m so glad it was. I hold very little about my calendar as sacred, as I flex and bend and accommodate almost any request made of me, but when a client wanted me to be available for a board meeting that competed with my time with these kids? I said no. I should have said yes, some say, because they were my client and don’t I owe it to them? My guilty, usually accommodating, conscience felt I had to explain, and so I made sure they understood it was a commitment to young people who depended on me, and I couldn’t let these kids down. Would the kids have suffered with one less session? Nope. I hardly understood it then, but even now, as I write this, I have all the feels: The girls gave me a reason I could stand behind as I held a boundary, but the one who would have suffered is me.       

Besides the math, itself, I watched these fiery fifth graders articulate and resolve complaints with each other, taking responsibility with apologies and changes in behavior:

I watched the two most exuberant girls, who would repeatedly talk over a quieter one who consistently caught errors in calculations, slowly learn to hear and value the quiet, steady judgment of their friend;

I watched the girls take an hour to do a section they would be given twenty minutes to complete in competition, and six weeks later, I felt their roar of delight when they nailed a similar section in eighteen minutes;

I watched them struggle on days they came to me after three hours of math testing in class (don’t get me started on standardised testing), which they didn’t bother to mention until I asked what was up, and I watched them learn they could ask if they wanted to run and play outside, first, and that they did better math after doing so;

I watched them raise their expectations of themselves, experiment with roles, and rein each other in;

I watched them make the shift from doing math as fast as possible, to wondering and thinking;

I watched them embrace as a consistent starting point the question “what do I know?”

I watched them commit. I watched them discover rough days are followed by better days. I watched them grow.

Bearing witness to these moments, and so many more, I watched these girls build the very same skills we later water down, casualties to the ‘Professional Life’ and career and too busy schedules: Take responsibility for yourself and your impact; Apologize, accept the apologies of others, and move on; Ask for what you need; Ask for what you want; Celebrate with a roar; A team made up of others just like me would never work; Some days, we’re just not equipped but we probably will be tomorrow; Most days, we all do better work after running wild in a field; Commit to what matters.

These beautiful souls helped me remember myself, which is exactly what I want always to do for others. They helped me remember how to unapologetically prioritize what matters most to me, which in this case, was them. I quit over-explaining, by the end of three months, and let my ‘I’m not available” stand on its own. Nothing less than those glowing faces would have challenged me to hold space so surely. I am indebted.

I have real practice holding space for what matters to me, now, and it’s intoxicating.  

Magic indeed.     

Coach a math team, if you get the chance. It’s a trip.