Thriving at Work: A Serious Pitch for Intellectual Play

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Dr. Lara Jasien, head of research at CPM, Nashville, TN

In the midst of a pandemic and social unrest, it may seem crazy to talk about thriving at work — but stick with me.

According to psychologists, thriving is distinct from flourishing because the former involves not only a sense of vitality but also of learning. As teachers, many of you are struggling to adapt and cope in the new situations that have been thrust upon you. You may feel that you are learning like crazy, but are experiencing some burnout from the process. 

Interestingly, while thriving cannot happen in negative work situations (e.g., too much stress from job insecurity, unsafe working conditions, and work overload), thriving can happen when core psychological needs are not met (e.g., in times of serious illness). This is interesting because it tells us that “negative situations” are not fixed. They are based on stress, and stress is something we each have some amount of control over.

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.
Ask yourself what makes you come alive,
and go do that, because what the world
needs is people who have come alive.


Howard Thurman

Research tells us that when we use our agency to take initiative, such as by developing resources to make our work more interesting, our perceptions of our work situations become increasingly positive. In the words of some well-respected organizational psychologists, “The resources promoted by agentic work behaviors serve to further fuel the agentic work behaviors, and thus help to sustain thriving.” In other words, if you develop a practice of making your work interesting for you, you can scaffold yourself into thriving at work.

In my interpretation, this means that intellectual self-care is critical to thriving at work, especially in these times. Even more, as teachers, your intellectual well-being is intimately connected to your students’ intellectual well-being. In this sense, both the vitality and learning dimensions of teachers’ thriving seem especially important.

Vitality can be sustained through energizing relationships with colleagues. It is the opposite of burnout. Learning involves the development of new knowledge or skills and a shifting identity as someone who is increasingly capable of new things. The opposite of learning is stagnation.

I have a proposition to help with both: mathematical play. When was the last time that you took the time for yourself to engage in intellectual play that might renew and re-energize your interest in your work — both in content and in practice?

Taking the time to do this is important, even when it is hard to find the time amidst all the chaos of work, family, housekeeping, and exercise, especially when watching TV instead is so easy. Yet, somehow, I think you will find, as I have, that you are less overwhelmed when you slow down, skip TV (or delay it), have a routine, and engage in intellectual play.

Here are some suggestions to get you started

  1. Read a chapter from a STEM novel. You will not regret the time. Doing a mini-book club with a friend is even better, even if all you do is read it in parallel to share the exciting moments.
  2. Talk math with your kids. Build a tower! Cook with them using a recipe to experiment with quantity and proportion. Being interested in their thinking is the fun part!
  3. Do some mathematics that remind you of that experience of mathematical uncertainty — embrace the ambiguity and allow yourself to explore different paths that may fizzle out as unproductive. Here are some places to find fun, mind stretching problems. Doing these with others is the most fun, but if you are all “zoomed-out,” try doing them with a spouse or someone in your circle. Maybe do them with a cozy beverage, especially if you live in a zone where the fall chill is setting in:
    a. Head over to www.cpm.org/play and check out “Tom’s Problems.” These problems are fun and doable, very open ended, and not a pinch. I have done a few myself and always feel a sense of curiosity. I have had multiple (sometimes premature) ah-ha moments that make me remember why I love mathematics.
    b. Join a Math Teachers Circle (here’s one in San Jose), or create your own!
    c. Do some geometric puzzles! (Here’s some by Catriona Agg and some more by Ed Southhall.)
    d. Try out some cryptarithms for beginners or try more complex ones!
    e. Rent from your local library or buy a used version of Martin Gardner’s recreational mathematics problems and puzzles.
    There are plenty more sources for recreational mathematics. Just Google it!

Maybe engaging in this kind of mathematical play will help you in your teaching, or maybe not (but, it probably will). Either way, that is not really the point. In my opinion, intellectual play is what helps us move beyond feelings of surviving to feelings of thriving. Right now, the world needs people who are thriving. It can’t hurt to try!

All research from this entry was learned from:

Spreitzer, G., Sutcliffe, K., Dutton, J., Sonenshein, S., Grant., A. (2005). A socially embedded model of thriving at work.
Organization Science, 16(5), pp. 537-549.

Some parts of this post were taken from my own post in the Global Math Department’s newsletter on 9/22/20.

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Algebra Tiles Session

  • Used throughout CPM middle and high school courses
  • Concrete, geometric representation of algebraic concepts.
  • Two-hour virtual session,
  •  Learn how students build their conceptual understanding of simplifying algebraic expressions
  • Solving equations using these tools.  
  • Determining perimeter,
  • Combining like terms,
  • Comparing expressions,
  • Solving equations
  • Use an area model to multiply polynomials,
  • Factor quadratics and other polynomials, and
  • Complete the square.
  • Support the transition from a concrete (manipulative) representation to an abstract model of mathematics..

Foundations for Implementation

This professional learning is designed for teachers as they begin their implementation of CPM. This series contains multiple components and is grounded in multiple active experiences delivered over the first year. This learning experience will encourage teachers to adjust their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs about teaching and learning. Teachers and leaders will gain first-hand experience with CPM with emphasis on what they will be teaching. Throughout this series educators will experience the mathematics, consider instructional practices, and learn about the classroom environment necessary for a successful implementation of CPM curriculum resources.

Page 2 of the Professional Learning Progression (PDF) describes all of the components of this learning event and the additional support available. Teachers new to a course, but have previously attended Foundations for Implementation, can choose to engage in the course Content Modules in the Professional Learning Portal rather than attending the entire series of learning events again.

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Building on Instructional Practice Series

This series contains three different courses, taken in either order. The courses are designed for schools and teachers with a minimum of one year of experience teaching with CPM curriculum materials. Teachers will develop further understanding of strategies and tools for instructional practices and assessment.

Building on Equity

In this course, participants will learn how to include equitable practices in their  classroom and support traditionally underserved students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Participants will reflect on how their math identity and mindsets impact student learning. They will begin working on a plan for implementing Chapter 1 that creates an equitable classroom culture and curate strategies for supporting all students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Follow-up during the school year will support ongoing implementation of equitable classroom practices.

Building on Assessment

In this course, participants will apply assessment research to develop methods to provide feedback to students and to inform equitable assessment decisions. Participants will develop assessment action plans that will encourage continued collaboration within their learning community.

Building on Discourse

This professional learning builds upon the Foundations for Implementation Series by improving teachers’ ability to facilitate meaningful mathematical discourse. This learning experience will encourage participants to adjust their instructional practices in the areas of sharing math authority, developing independent learners, and the creation of equitable classroom environments. Participants will plan for student learning by using teaching practices such as posing purposeful questioning, supporting productive struggle, and facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse. In doing so, participants learn to support students collaboratively engaged with rigorous, team-worthy tasks with all elements of the Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices.