During the day, I teach Algebra I classes to high school freshmen in Springfield, Missouri. One night per week, I teach preservice elementary school teachers who serve as paraprofessionals at K-12 schools in Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and California through Reach University. Reach University offers adults employed in schools and other workplaces the opportunity to earn a unique bachelor’s degree that embraces work experience as part of the learning process. After earning this degree and passing certification tests required by some states, candidates are qualified to teach.
The ninth-graders in my classes and the preservice teachers I teach have one thing in common: math has not always come easy for them, and for many in both groups, learning math can be overwhelming.
Over the past 20 years of my education career, I've heard my ninth grade students and preservice teachers say things like, “I have never been good at math” and “I am not a math person.” Confirmingly, research shows that adult learners self-report lower levels of math self-efficacy and higher levels of math anxiety than traditional undergraduates. These findings further exacerbate the challenge of training math-confident educators as our nation works to address unfinished math learning throughout K-12 due to the pandemic.
As a professor of practice whose goal is to prepare preservice teachers to lead their own classrooms, how do I ensure that these preservice teachers know math content well and feel equipped and prepared to teach math to students?
My answer: an immersive, 15-credit-hour semester of math. During the 15 weeks, there is an intentional focus on learning math content through a math reasoning course aligned to content that preservice teachers will see on the Praxis Elementary Education: Mathematics Subtest 5003, exploring math pedagogy through a math methods course, and practicing math teaching strategies with students on their jobs as paraprofessionals through a math placements course.
A Typical Semester for Future Math Teachers
A standard math semester for preservice teacher candidates includes three key components that improve their learning: building a mathematical mindset, forming a sense of belonging that extends beyond math, and focusing on the connection between learning math content, exploring math pedagogy, and practicing teaching strategies.
The first key component is a focus on a mathematical mindset. Preservice teachers start the semester considering what it means to think like a mathematician and exploring math classroom norms created by Jo Boaler, a Stanford University mathematics education professor. As Boaler asserts, “Everyone can learn math to high levels. Mistakes are valuable. Math is about creativity, making sense, connections, and communicating.” Preservice teachers review these norms at the beginning of every class and determine what resonates with them based on the day's topic.
Second, preservice teachers need to feel a sense of connection and belonging. Adult learners often have low self-confidence when learning math; many have not been students for several years, and they report feeling anxious about taking a math class. Focusing on connection and belonging helps to raise their self-efficacy as it relates to learning math. To start each class, I ask a check-in question that has nothing to do with math:
- What is bringing you joy right now?
- If you could travel back in time five years, what would you tell yourself?
- How would you describe how you are managing your workload right now?
In our virtual math reasoning course, preservice teachers can answer in the chat or share their thoughts verbally. I often get favorable reviews about this part of the class. In a recent survey, one preservice teacher wrote, “I love the beginning check-ins, not all professors care about your well-being.”
Finally, as a math department, we have intentionally created engaging lessons in math methods and math placement courses that are directly connected to what students are learning in the math reasoning course during the same semester. Math teachers need to have a deep understanding of math content and effectively teach mathematics. For that reason, I firmly believe that for preservice teachers to learn math, they must do it.
In our classes, preservice teachers do math individually so that they can develop their own reasoning, think and discuss in small groups to compare strategies and then engage in whole group discussions where their thinking is illuminated. Preservice teachers in our classes appreciate having opportunities to discuss their own ideas and analyze their classmates’ work, bringing them to the conclusion that math problems can be solved in different, creative ways.
Over the last two and a half years since I began teaching at Reach, I've seen this sequence of math courses have a tremendous impact on the preservice teachers in our classes. They spend 15 weeks thinking deeply about understanding math content while considering what it means to be an effective math teacher.
I’ve watched them transform their thinking about what it means to be a mathematician. Instead of declaring that they are not math people, by the end of the semester, they feel more confident in their math skills and have sharpened their ability to teach math to students.
What Preservice Math Teachers Need
My experience as a high school teacher and college professor has led me to three conclusions about preparing preservice teachers to teach mathematics:
- Belonging matters in math class. Preservice teachers need to feel a sense of belonging in math class, even if they haven’t been successful at it in the past. When students feel connected to each other and the professor, walls are broken down and they are able to engage in the challenging work of learning math. Even as adults, knowing that others care about them helps them feel comfortable enough to learn.
- Math discourse impacts what and how preservice teachers learn. Talking about math opens up new perspectives. The preservice teachers in my class get to develop their own reasoning, justify their thinking and critique the reasoning of others. Communicating about math helps candidates compare strategies, broaden their thinking and develop their own questions. Discourse also reveals misconceptions; they make mistakes and realize that their mistakes are tools for learning.
- To deepen understanding and learning, professors must find ways to engage students in thinking. Learning math requires being allowed the time and the space to think critically about connections between concepts. During our math reasoning classes, we use various websites where students in our virtual environment can do the math, discuss their thinking, and ask questions. Desmos, Peardeck and Nearpod all have effective ways to increase engagement beyond lectures in a virtual environment. We must increase opportunities for thinking, not just mimicking in math class.
Math is hard. Teaching math is even harder. Yet, at the end of the semester, the preservice teacher candidates in my classes feel much more empowered to teach math. Our schools desperately need more math teachers, and as we’ve learned by implementing this semester-long math learning course, we can prepare preservice teachers to meet students' needs by ensuring that they leave teacher prep programs believing in themselves. Their ability to teach math gives them ample opportunities to discuss their thinking and be intentional about helping them focus on math content and pedagogy simultaneously.
When I consider the implications of classrooms being led by teachers who are masters of math content and effective practitioners, I cannot help but think of the positive impact on students like the freshmen in my algebra classes. Having teachers who foster a sense of belonging and identity in the math classroom would make a significant and lasting difference in students' lives. So many more students would be proud to declare that they are math people, prepared to think critically and empowered to face challenges wherever life takes them after high school.