I never wanted to be a math teacher. I wanted to change the world, to give a megaphone to the voices of the silenced and oppressed, to find an access key to power for outsiders. I left West Virginia and arrived on the Philadelphia Main Line with an ideological ax swinging high over my head, barreling straight towards politics or law school. As a freshman undergrad, I had a phenomenal math teacher and read a righteous math book. Jeff Tecosky-Feldman was an author of the Harvard Calculus Consortium book from which he taught; his lectures sparkled with the simple and powerful truths that explain what’s what, why and how. In The Algebra Project, Bob Moses wrote that access to a solid math education is the civil rights issue of our time… a life and death fight for the future of our country and a passport to full citizenship for disenfranchised people. They are my mathematical parents.
I have had opportunity to form, revise and test my own theories of math education in diverse settings. I have chaired a mathematics department of an elite K-12 private school and taught math at summer camps in the housing projects of Boston. I have led both precocious prep-school seventh graders and struggling community-college forty-somethings through the gateways of Algebra. I have trained college kids to be math tutors, designed outdoor hands-on math curricula, and developed seminars for math teachers. I spent a transformative summer month discovering Lesson Study with Gail Burrill at the Park City Math Institute. Of all the things I have come to believe, this is the most important: math needs play, needs cooperation, needs language. Simply put, math classrooms, math textbooks, math teachers’ PLCs all need to be socialized. We all need to cooperate and create, discuss and defend, move through effective to search for elegant. This is certainly true for students in rural places, who are raised to be most comfortable being and learning in groups.
I live in the house where I grew up, in the most sparsely-populated county east of the Mississippi. We have high rates of unemployment, drug abuse and teen pregnancy, yet a deep sense of place, pride and community. The public school system is all we have here. As the county’s first math instructional coach, I am doing the most exciting work of my life in a place where teachers are overburdened and underpaid, where the craft of teaching is buried under required paperwork, where there is no funding for conferences or Sketchpad licenses. I am facilitating teachers, teaching with teachers, teaching math to teachers and learning about teaching math from all of these.
Teaching is risky business, and these days it can be downright frightening. We have under-qualified math teachers being asked to teach math that they never learned themselves, and textbook companies convincing school systems that a new ordering of chapters can support them to do so successfully. I am in the trenches – in one of the most poorly performing, poorly funded states in the Union, and the growth in our students’ math skills, scores and interest is downright exciting. I am still motivated by a marriage of my original inspirations in Jeff and Bob. I have much to say and more to learn, and am excited to be part of the conversation within and beyond these hills.