The Minnesota native started his teaching career in Maine before coming to D.C., where he has been at Two Rivers Public Charter School for the past three years. With wisdom from nine years of teaching, Bill shares his views on the Common Core and the future of math education and also gives us a sense of what’s to come during his Teacher of the Year tenure.
Tutoring during college generated my initial interest in teaching as a career. As a math major at Bowdoin College, I considered actuarial studies, consulting jobs, or perhaps an advanced degree in mathematics. Since Bowdoin urges its students to pursue the common good, I opted for teaching since it deeply involves mathematics and helping others and society. I made this decision late in my senior year and was not well informed about paths into teaching. I applied to many independent schools, which seemed like the only option since I would not have a teaching license. Eventually, I found a job at Berwick Academy, a prep school in South Berwick, Maine. From there, I moved to D.C. to teach at Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy.
As you might imagine, the shift from prep school to a public school in D.C. was a drastic change. I found it much more difficult to motivate students, and there seemed to be considerable gaps in prerequisite math knowledge. Eventually, I felt that I needed to seek out resources from the mathematics education research community, so I enrolled at the University of Washington College of Education. Upon graduation with a master’s degree, I sought out a school environment that valued diversity and progressive teaching styles, and I found the perfect fit with Two Rivers.
According to the D.C. Public Charter Schools announcement about your Teacher of the Year award, you play many different roles at Two Rivers beyond your classroom responsibilities. How do these additional roles relate to the school's educational model?
At Two Rivers, I teach four classes, advise 12 students, participate in professional development, and collaborate on several course-planning teams. Two Rivers places academic learning and social learning on equal footing. We want our graduates to be knowledgeable and competent, but also compassionate and responsible. In such small settings, staff members and students are called upon to play many roles. This creates many different opportunities for relationships within the community to grow. For example, a student who struggles in my math class may thrive when given an opportunity to emcee the school assembly. Since I am involved in both settings, I can look for ways to allow that student to parlay his strengths from emceeing into the classroom (perhaps as a discussion facilitator).
As a recognized math teacher, why do you think so many students, parents, and teachers struggle with math? How do you overcome these hurdles to lead your students to success?
There are many different reasons to explain each person's struggles, but I believe a major cause of disinclination towards math is that competence in math is narrowly defined by our schools and our students. Traditionally, valued math skills have included mental computational skills, pattern recognition, and procedural fluency (accurately executing a step-by-step process). Certainly, these are important skills, but a focus on them does not recognize students who ask good questions, organize their work well, and persevere on long problems. In fact, students in the highest levels of math are likely better served by having the latter three skills than the former.
We can attract more students to math by re-orienting our math classrooms. I try to consistently acknowledge and value the full spectrum of skills that my students bring to class. I also give richer tasks in my class, focus discussions around student work, and know my students well enough to recognize their varied strengths.
Tell me more about the Math for America fellowship and your role in the program. How is it similar to, or different from, other teaching programs? What have you gained from participating in it?
Math for America (MfA) is a national organization that aims to recruit, retain, and develop high-quality secondary mathematics teachers in major urban centers. The fellowship program recruits prospective teachers from mathematically-related majors and career fields into a five-year program. In their first year, fellows attend graduate school and student-teach. In the next four years, fellows work in public schools in their city and attend regular professional development sessions with other fellows across the city. I am a master teacher with MfA, which means that I plan and facilitate professional development sessions and host student teachers in my classroom.
I believe MfA is hugely valuable. By reaching out to recent graduates and easing some of the barriers to entry, MfA encourages more people with strong math backgrounds to enter the teaching field. Further, we need to instill in teachers a desire and capacity to continue to grow as practitioners throughout their careers. MfA pushes us toward this goal by creating a community of learners that can develop a sense of pride and craftsmanship about their practice.
What are your thoughts about the current and upcoming changes in math instruction because of the Common Core? What challenges and benefits do you think teachers and students will have from this curricular movement?
I am enthusiastic about the Common Core, particularly the standards for mathematical practice such as: "Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them." Many of the preceding sets of standards mostly codified mathematical knowledge and procedure, but fell short when describing what effective mathematicians and problem-solvers actually do with math. One potential benefit is that more students will shift from viewing mathematics as an arcane set of facts and rules toward viewing mathematics as a useful, accessible set of tools.
One major challenge for teachers will be finding time for lessons that involve students applying the standards for mathematical practice. The practices require students to be active doers of mathematics, not receivers of facts and algorithms, which means that lessons must allow students time to struggle with concepts and ideas. Another challenge of the Common Core is negotiating its intersection with the mass assessments mandated by No Child Left Behind. Simple content standards lend themselves to short, multiple-choice questions. Students' mastery of standards for mathematical practice will be difficult to measure accurately and efficiently.
As the 2014 D.C. Teacher of the Year, what messages do you hope to impart?
Mathematical literacy is the civil right of our time. The ability to reason abstractly is the key to economic enfranchisement in our increasingly technological age. This means that my fellow math teachers and I must strive to make our classrooms more inclusive and more empowering to students from all backgrounds. We must continually renew our practice in service of helping more students learn. Education policymakers must protect teachers' out-of-classroom time so that teachers have the time to engage in professional learning, reflection, and analysis. The ratio of preparation and reflection time to in-class time vastly affects the effectiveness of lessons. The push toward longer school days and longer school years has the potential to significantly dilute the thoughtfulness that teachers can put into their class time.
Amanda Klein is a community school coordinator in Baltimore, and her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Send her your suggestions for future interviews via email.