TMC16 reflections from someone who wasn’t there

This post is about my response to TMC16.

For the uninitiated, TMC is short for Twitter Math Camp. This is a conference designed by teachers for teachers with teacher speakers, organised through the collective efforts of the Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere (MTBoS) — a group of people who blog and tweet about their experiences teaching math(s). That description is not the best description of the MTBoS, but I’ll get to that later.

For those who were actually at TMC16, you may be thinking, “But David, you weren’t at TMC16!” And I wasn’t, not physically at least. But then Tracy Zager mentioned me in her keynote, and Megan Schmidt told me that she did, and suddenly I was drawn into a most interesting world I had never observed before.

Over the next week, I followed the #TMC16 hashtag as people live-tweeted sessions, live-recorded them and posted them on YouTube. I participated via Twitter in the activities they did during sessions, and in discussion in the days afterwards. I read any number of blogs about people’s experiences attending.

Now I have so many thoughts spiralling through my head, and I need to write about them to process them. I also need to put TMC16 to bed because semester starts again today and I have so many jobs to do, some of which I didn’t do during the mid-year break because I was virtually attending TMC. So here goes: my TMC16 reflections.

The conference structure you wish you had

The conference itself sounds like the best setup for a conference I have ever known: The morning sessions were all connected across the three days to allow for focussed development of ideas. There was one keynote speaker a day. There are afternoon sessions based on accepted proposals, with one more timeslot on the last day for people who weren’t accepted to do sessions of their own (called “Flex” sessions) [Note: see Lisa’s comment below for what Flex sessions are actually designed for.]. Anyone at the conference could sign up to do “Favourites” talks of up to 15 mins which were done at whole-conference sessions at various points during each day — literally anyone from the newcomer to the seasoned veteran. Plus there was a full 90 minutes for lunch!

I have never experienced a conference with such a diverse set of ways to learn and interact: three-day workshops, short sessions, long talks, short talks, long lunch. I have also never experienced a conference with such an explicit focus on encouraging community interaction. At what other conference has a newcomer ever been encouraged to actually do a 10-minute talk to the whole conference, and cheered on when they do so?

I have been to several conferences in the past and felt like an outsider. I’ve felt like others there were concerned with meeting up with their once-a-year friends more than welcoming newcomers. I’ve felt like somehow you have to be better than you are to be allowed to participate or have a voice. Watching the Favourites talks of people, many of whom were newcomers, some of whom revealed quite personal stories, made me wish for something better. Reading people’s thoughts about how welcoming everyone was to their conversations made me wish for something better.

Keynote speakers who are honest, encourage you think and then do something about it

There were three keynote speakers across the three days, chosen from among those in the MTBoS: Dylan Kane, Jose Vilson, and Tracy Zager. Each of them talked with humour, passion, compassion and honesty. They brought their perspectives on what teaching can be about, what the MTBoS can be about, and then had calls to action to encourage the listeners to do¬†something about what they had heard. This is a brilliant concept and really brings home the idea that the conference wasn’t just a love-in and a place to passively receive information, but is supposed to empower others to change.

What I particularly appreciated was the three speakers’ honesty. Each of them told their own journeys and struggles with teaching and participating in this community. It’s a different type of thing from keynote speakers I’ve seen before, who are called in as experts and always seem to have all the answers. These three on the other hand clearly admitted their own shortcomings and how they still have a lot to learn. It was so refreshing.

A paradox: more than resources, but was it ever just resources?

Dylan in his keynote mentioned how the MTBoS needs to become more than resources. He noted how when he was a new teacher, he was a magpie bringing in shiny new resources and activities into his classroom from the MTBoS and “throwing them at the wall to see what would stick”. It was a long time before he realised that what he needed was ideas that underpin these to make them work in his own context. He encouraged the MTBoS to be more than just a collection of resources people have made.

Tracy in her keynote mentioned how she as an early school teacher was intimidated by the number of high-school teachers in the MTBoS discussing on Twitter, and how she overcame this to become part of these conversations. The point is that she seemed to see the MTBoS as a conversation to be joined.

I find this contrast most interesting. I’ve been watching the MTBoS for about a year, and I never had the impression of it as a list of resources at all! Only now am I starting to find these resources that Dylan mentioned. Perhaps this is because it was introduced to me as a Twitter discussion hashtag first. I saw it as a place where people asked questions and in response got various answers and mostly thoughtful discussion. That’s what I was seeing on Twitter. When I followed links to people’s blogs, I mostly saw discussion of how they had tried to implement things, or thoughtful pieces about what teaching is and could be. Very rarely did I see a blog post simply listing resources people had made, and if I did I never found them that inspiring, so I didn’t go back there.

In light of Dylan’s talk, I realised I had somehow selected my experience of the MTBoS to be about the discussion and not the resources. Another reason for this self-selection may be because I am not a classroom teacher any more and so it’s not the resources that I think I need. I can’t use resources in my teaching most of the time because of the teaching situation I am in, so I gravitated to the discussion. That discussion fed my thinking about teaching, rather than some other more physical need.

I have to say that I agree with Dylan that there needs to be more about the thinking when people do post resources. As a new teacher in a school where I was it for maths and science for the whole school, I really needed that thought process to make sure I actually went through a thought process, rather than “throwing to see what sticks”. As a teacher in university looking at resources that are at the school level, I need the thinking to help me sort out if and how I could apply this stuff to my own teaching situation. I suspect Tracy would agree that the thinking would allow an elementary teacher to relate things talked about by a high-school teacher to their situation, too.

The really interesting thing is that TMC itself shifts the focus from resources to discussion. I can’t count the number of TMC recaps that have mentioned the fact that going to TMC and interacting with people in person made them feel more part of the community and therefore more able to engage with discussion. I can’t count the number that said that it was not the resources and activity ideas they appreciated but the chance to thrash out their thinking about teaching. I think there’s a lesson there about what the MTBoS is really about.

Post-TMC malaise

One problem with watching but not attending TMC (and possibly the same for attendees too) is that it only heightens my sense of disconnectedness at home. My teaching situation is quite rare, and it can be hard to feel connected. Also, at my university at least, not everyone is willing to have discussions about teaching at all, and sometimes only willing to do so if there is a rigorous research backing first, rather than the refreshing can-do attitude I see in the members of the MTBoS. Even when I do have them, it’s hard to feel like it’s a valid use of my time when there’s the huge pile of mostly administrative jobs that have to be done. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do about this.


Thanks to Megan and Tracy for inviting me in to the TMC experience. Despite the malaise, I count it as a most rewarding experience. Oh, and I gather I am supposed to choose one TMC thing that I plan to work on for the next year. Well, I choose to be more active in welcoming people to the teaching discussion. I want the teachers around me to know that I really care about their thoughts and want to learn from them. I choose to ask others for their thoughts on teaching and to really listen.

So there’s my TMC16 reflections, from someone who didn’t actually go.



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2 Responses

  1. Lisa Henry says:

    Hi David!

    Thank you for taking the time to blog about your experience with #TMC16 from the perspective of someone who attended virtually. It was really interesting to read what you gleaned from all of the tweets.

    For those of David’s readers who don’t know me, I am the lead organizer of TMC16 and have organized it from the beginning.

    I did want to offer a couple of clarifications to the TMC experience. I have to say, I am incredibly impressed how much of the TMC experience you have correct for never having attended one and just learning of it from being mentioned in Tracy Zager’s keynote! “Flex” Sessions (on the last full day) actually serve two purposes: one, if someone has something they would like to present that came up after the original speaker proposal deadline in January, or two (and this was the original purpose), as conversations happen over the course of a couple of days, people wish to spend time discussing it further. Sometimes what happens is people ask for a session to be repeated or for a different focus. For example, last year, Chris Harris gave a 30 minute session on Number Talks at the Elementary level and so many people asked her about how to do Number Talks at the Secondary level that she repeated it as a Flex Session with that focus.

    You said: “I have also never experienced a conference with such an explicit focus on encouraging community interaction.” That is very much what the focus is for TMC. As much as I’d like to say it’s about the learning, it is really (for me) about the interaction with everyone. We started TMC in 2012 as an extension of our interactions on Twitter. We needed to meet in person. The face-to-face interaction was, and still is, what drives me to continue to organize this conference each year.

    I am glad that you shared your perspective. It helps me to see other’s perceptions of what happens at TMC. Maybe at some point, you’ll be able to attend one in person. Next year, we’ll be outside of Atlanta, Georgia from July 27-30, 2017. Maybe then?

    All the best,
    Lisa Henry
    Chief Organizing Officer, TMathC
    Lead Organizer, TMC16

    • David Butler says:

      Thank you for your comprehensive response Lisa!

      I’m glad I got the overall impression right from my first interaction with TMC, especially only having heard of it this year. I have to say it’s the live tweeting and the people’s blogs that make it clearer what it’s about, more than the website itself.

      I may never come to a TMC because travelling outside Aus is a big deal for me, both for work and family reasons. But I will certainly follow along online each year in July!

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