Then and Now: Looking Back Back on 30 Years of High School Math Teaching

I started teaching high school math in 1989.  Classrooms and teaching in them have both changed quite a bit in 30 years due to technological advances.  [Not enough, in my opinion, but that is the subject of another blog post.]  As the decade closes, here’s a look back on how things used to be…

  1.  Taking Attendance.  It used to be that we would post our attendance outside our classrooms on slips of paper.  Some of us had cute clips or pockets on our doors or door frames; others used tape.  An “office worker” (a student who did not have a class that period and was assigned to the office instead of to a study hall) would collect the slips about ten minutes into the period.  Now we take attendance on line through our school data management system.  20+ years ago, an office worker would also distribute a “morning report” which would list all of the students who were absent, by grade, the teachers who were absent, and who their sub was, and suspended students (in school or out of school) with how many days remained of said suspension.  The good ole’ days when we knew everyone’s business!


    2″ x 4″ absentee slips.  I am told some subs still use them, though I am not sure why since they usually email or text names to the front office.

  2.  Record keeping. Before computers and the internet, teachers kept their attendance, grades, and lesson plans in a single spiral bound book.  When we transitioned to online, it took a lot of us several years to completely ditch this format.  Now, however, I doubt there are many teachers (less than 5%) who still use this kind of planner.
  3.  Calculators.  By 1989, students in Algebra 2 and higher were expected to have a scientific calculator to use in their math, chem, and physics classes.  Gone were the days of referring to trigonometric and logarithmic tables in the back of your text book, though they were still printed there until the late 1990s.  I had never used the tables in the back of the book (let alone a slide rule) so teaching students with scientific calculators was not a problem for me.  However, in 1990 everything changed when Texas Instruments introduced its first graphing calculator and brilliantly marketed it to schools, teachers, and students.  I vividly remember holding one in my hand as it graphed a quadratic function and thinking We have to change what kinds of questions we ask our students.  The graphing calculator has not changed much in 30 years, but free sites such as desmos are changing how we teach and, in some cases, how we assess our students.


    This is my calculator from sophomore year of high school.  It carried me through college and my first year of teaching.  Now it stays in my classroom closet and I pull it out occasionally.

  4.  Document Camera Other than the graphing calculator, the doc cam has been my favorite innovation.  I used one heavily (for about 5-8 years) until I recently decided to take pictures of anything I would normally put under the doc cam, send them to my laptop or iPad, and project them from there instead.  In this way, the document camera is (almost) obsolete for me.

    Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 9.43.39 AM

    Loved my Hover Cam.  Still have it.  It’s dusty.

  5.  Video.  A video used to be something teachers would show on a TV/VCR combo checked out from the school library. (I am recalling this as if there were scads of math videos, which there weren’t.)  Now we can show a quick video clip in our classroom from tens of thousands available on the internet.  Videoing a lesson for self-reflection or instructional purposes can be done from one’s laptop or smartphone.  Many teachers are using a flipped classroom model where students watch the lesson as their “homework” but use class time to work on problems.  Personally, I have never flipped my classroom but I do love videoing a short lesson for review purposes or if many of the students get a particular quiz question wrong. 
  6.  Grades.  When I first started teaching, grades were all in the spiral bound book (see #2) and at the end of the quarter or semester the teacher would calculate averages, write them on a slips of paper, and distribute them to the students so that they had a better idea of where they stood going into the final test or exam.  Now, students and their families can access grades and averages online any time.  Even so, many students are just as oblivious about where they stand during the school year, and think that we can bump their final from an 89 to a 90 because it’s just one point.  Averages make about as much sense to them now as they did then, and I guess you can blame math teachers, but students’ failure to understand averages isn’t for lack of trying on math teachers’ parts, I can assure you.
  7. Gaining Employment  In 1989 if you needed to find a job you would contact schools in writing or by phone and they would send you an application in the mail which you would then complete and send back.  Nowadays we go online to see what jobs are posted and take the process from there, uploading applications and resumés for the school or district to consider us as a candidate.  Instead of making the long trek to for an interview, video calls have taken the place of phone interviews in many instances.  The upshot is that I have lived long enough to see marvelous inventions foreshadowed in The Jetsons.

    Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 10.57.43 AM

    I thought this was the coolest invention ever and now we actually have it.  I am still waiting for a few others…

  8. Remuneration.  Thirty years ago, teachers didn’t get paid very much.  These days, nothing has changed.  However, one thing that has changed is that instead of paper checks, we all have direct deposit.  The only time I ever get remunerated by my school via a paper check is when I file an expense report after attending a conference.
  9. Boards.  Very few classrooms have chalkboards any more; most have dry erase boards.  I, for one, prefer the dry erase boards.  Apparently dry erase boards are better for all the computers we have in our classrooms now (less dust).  They are definitely better for my hands.
  10. AND finally, The Internet The first computers in classrooms were only for programming, word processing, or working with pre-loaded software.  Once the general public had access to the internet, schools did too and classroom computers gained access via dial up.  This wasn’t really that long (23 years?) ago.  By 2000, many classrooms were wired with one or two computer-only jacks so that the user could connect directly to the internet.  Schools had at least one, and in some cases several, computer labs where each computer was plugged into the wall.  But with the advent of Wi-Fi, schools have been able to be much more flexible with regard to getting their students on the internet in the form of carts (we have mobiLABs filled with chrome books in our district) and what were once labs are now back to regular classrooms.


These are the top 10 changes I have witnessed in my almost 30 years.  If you’d like to add your own perspective, feel free to comment below!

7 thoughts on “Then and Now: Looking Back Back on 30 Years of High School Math Teaching

  1. Virge, back when I started teaching in 1983, there were few resources for teachers outside the textbook. You might pick up some ideas at a conference or an in-service, but most of what you tried in class was either of your own making or something you picked up at a conference. Now, resources on all aspects of teaching abound, from Tpt to Edutopia to whatever—the sky is the limit.

    • Agree! One thing that has not changed is that math teachers MUST WORK ALL THE PROBLEMS they assign their students — there is no such thing as “no prep” even though the publishers / sites will tout this!

      • I agree. Although tech tools make it easier to conduct student centered activities such as students talking through their solution using the document camera.

  2. I started teaching in 1988. I love all the videos to help students learn. I am not a big fan of slader or math solving apps. Gone are the expectations that students will do their hw themselves. This is good and bad. Bad because the lazy ones do not practice. Good because I don’t spend as much time going over the homework. They know the answers, so most of the questions come from students who “really” did the work themselves. Great post!!!!!!!

    • Look at the email I just sent my AP calculus students:

      Today I was pretty disappointed with a lot of the notebooks. Even though many people got “an “A” for their grade, 5/7 of the assignments from UNIT 7 looked exactly like answers from a teachers’ edition, or copied straight off of Slader (see attached). As you know, there are multiple steps involved in solving differential equations, and to correctly communicate calculus (which is one of the Mathematical Practices expected and assessed via the AP exam), not to mention arrive at the right answer, involves plenty of work (see other attached). As you also know, doing well on a test with no notes in front of you, no help from friends, no internet, and no teacher, means you must practice rigorously to ensure you can do the problems solo.

      Why do I spend the time checking notebooks? (Existential question, I know.) I could be doing lots of other things instead of spending time grading notebooks. I grade them because I want you to stay organized. People who are organized are more efficient and therefore it takes them less time to do their work and they have more time for fun. That’s important in life. But more importantly, I spend time grading them to help motivate you to practice. I am not sure it was effective this time. I am sure that no one in your next academic venue will grade your notebook, though they will assess you in many other ways. Prior to these other assessments, it will be vital for you to practice. Some people definitely need less practice than others and that’s ok.

      In light of this, I have decided to not check notebooks again this year. There is one exception. If you would like me to check your notebook for a minor grade, then it should resemble Quinn’s or Joey’s or Hai Hai’s or Katie’s or Allie’s. A few others were excellent too, but I can’t remember whose they were and I apologize for not giving you a shout out. Ask to see theirs to understand what I am talking about. Unit 8 is coming up. It will be a minor grade for a notebook check, if you want to submit it. Otherwise, it will just stay as an NM when the time comes.

      Reflect on this email and respond to this by noon on Sunday with a minimum of three sentences for possible bonus points on your test.

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