Selling Math Class

After graduate school in physics, I was offered the position of a sales engineer at a large sales representative firm that covered the mid-west of the United States. We represented electronic component manufacturers that made anything from diodes or capacitors, to micro-controllers and processors, and even cellular modems, single board computers, and SSDs. With the product lines as such, I called on a lot of electrical engineers. This is what I did for five years prior to becoming a high school math and physics teacher.

The job was hard for me. I’ve thought a lot about why that was and I’m not sure I have a very concise answer. I think what it came down to was that to an extent, I was and am still not motivated by money. The way I felt did not fluctuate much after I had won a big deal or lost a big deal, received a large commission check or did not receive one at all. I didn’t take any pride in my wins or feel much guilt in my losses. Still, the experience of being a sales guy for five years has turned out to be critically important for my personal growth. I regularly take lessons learned from my life as a salesman and apply them to my life today.

I did try to like the life of a sales guy and hoped that if I got better at it my attitude towards it would become more positive. After all, they did pay me a lot of money and that had to be worth something! In my effort to hone my craft, I came upon a number of sales training products. They come in the form of books, videos, classes, seminars, conferences, and the like. They have great titles such as “What To Do When The Other Guy’s Price Is Lower”,
“Start with No”, and “You Can’t Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike At a Seminar”. That last one is written by David H. Sandler who is the creator of the Sandler Sales Method.

I had read some of Sandler’s books and really enjoyed them. They were my gold standard for how I should behave as a salesman – something to aim for but hardly realized. Sandler created something he calls the Sandler Submarine, which is a series of steps (compartments) for how to engage, qualify, and close sales deals with prospects. When I started teaching and started thinking about how to engage with my students, the Sandler Submarine popped into my head.

As I brushed up on the Submarine’s principles, the similarity between how a salesman should interact with prospects and how a teacher should interact with students was overwhelming to me. I decided to adapt this Sandler Submarine for teaching:

1. Bonding & Rapport: Show Vulnerability

Gain respect and trust. For the teacher, show vulnerability and establish your role in the learning process. Teaching is not allowing your students to passively learn. Teaching is coaxing students to actively learn. Somehow, someway.

2. Up-Front Contracts: Clear View of the Future

There must be a clear view of the future at all times. In a way so that both students and the teacher understand, establish expectations such as classroom norms, grading policies, discipline policies, objectives, schedules, instructions, etc. There can’t be any assumptions made by the teacher or the students.

Overall, active learning is expected. There is a lot of effort, frustration, guilt, excitement, shame, wonderment, exasperation, satisfaction, and more involved with learning anything new – especially math. The students will experience these feelings if they are learning, which is exactly what they are supposed to be doing. That is the norm! The teacher needs to tell them so!

3. Pain: If Math Class is the Solution, What is the Problem?

Understanding the surface problems students face, the underlying reasons those problems exist, and the personal impacts these problems cause the student to experience are important parts of engaging with students in math class. When asked (and they should be asked), students are likely to highlight and be fully aware of the surface pains math class solves for them. For example, they might say they need a good grade, to learn math, get a diploma, get a job, get into college, or make money.

The underlying pain that math class needs to address is the difficulty of dealing with feeling wrong. Students also will have a future underlying pain of needing to send a strong signal about their math abilities, which will be in the form of standardized test scores and a grade point average. Students, like most sales prospects, will have a more difficult time being aware of their underlying pains and the extent of the impacts these pains will have on them.

Along with the students, the teacher has a great opportunity here to share some of their pains, as well. Teacher pains I like to share with students are trying to make the curriculum engaging, trying to maintain order in the classroom, and trying to get the students to be fully aware of their underlying pains. Students are likely to assume that the teachers’ pains are completely different than what they actually are. Admitting to students that there are difficulties in teaching (even though it seems to the students that the teacher has all the answers) and that some days teachers get it wrong and feel wrong can build the bond and rapport with students.

Overall, there needs to be an explicit understanding of what teachers and students want to get as a result of working together. It is important that all pains are acknowledged. The underlying pains need to be highlighted regularly in order for students and teachers to consider them.

4. Budget: What Do We Have To Give?

In the sales process, this is where the salesperson uncovers how much the prospect is willing to invest to obtain a solution to their pains. In the context of math class, it can be considered as an opportunity to establish realistic guidelines on resource commitments (mainly in the form of time, attention, and effort) from both the teacher and the students in an effort to solve the pains identified in the previous compartment.

As the teacher, it is important to highlight what resources have already been set aside. For starters, about one hour every weekday nine months per year. Based on what they already know, students will be able to see that these hours are valuable resources. Students should be asked what they think a reasonable investment is towards learning something new. For the musicians, how many wrong notes have you played? For the artists, how many drawings have you thrown away? For the athletes, how many shots have you missed? For the gamers, how many times did you fail to beat the level? An hour practice each day would result in the drastic improvement of any skill. Why would they expect math be any different?

5. Decision: No Hidden Agendas

The teacher needs to sum up the reasons for working together. There can be no hidden agendas. The teacher’s goal is to be in a position to ask each student, simply, “If all these conditions can be met, is there anything that would prevent us working together?”

This will highlight any final exceptions that students have with the conditions of working together. At the very least, being explicit about these terms will bring awareness to what the students are thinking and feeling. Also, when the situation arises that a student decides to not work, these terms can be referred to as a starting point to determine what has caused them to stop working.

6. Fulfillment: Staying on Track

As the lesson and classes go on and the teacher and students are “fulfilling” the expectations set out when the “decision” to work together was made, the teacher can regularly review everyone’s expectations to check to see if anything has changed. Repeatedly present the solutions that address the students’ pains. Acknowledge each pain. Check each student for agreement. Maybe use a scale of 1-10 and try to get them all to a 10. Finally, ask the students, “So, what would you like to do now?” and expect the answer, “Let us keep working!”

7. Post-Sell: Pull Weeds, Plant Seeds

This is where the teacher needs to address any issues that would cause a student to start seeing negative outcomes in math class. A student who expects negative outcomes in class will begin withdrawing, avoiding, and attacking them-self or others. These negative expectations need to be uprooted before they spread like a weed to other students in the classroom.

In sales, the post-sell also includes gathering referrals and opening the door for future business. When a lesson goes well there is a critical opportunity to plant the seed for the next day by reminding students that this is hard and they are handling it well. Also, students who are better at struggling through the learning process can be utilized to coax other students through it, as well. This can be seen as a referral, of sorts.

Now, I Know What You’re Thinking

I’m thinking it too. How practical is this, really? Similar to how it is used in sales, this is meant to be a guide for how to interact with students. Making students part of the process is in line with restorative practices and is more effective than considering the math teacher role as punitive. Math and teaching in general has become something that is done to the students and not with the students. Doing as much as possible with the students might get more of them to “buy-in”.

Like everything about teaching: easier said than done. David Sandler never guaranteed every submarine voyage would end in a sale, but it should never, ever, end in a “think-it-over”.