3 keys to humanity-first instructional leadership in math

I grew up not understanding mathematics. I didn’t know why at the time; I just didn’t connect with it. When I became an adult, I joined the military and began to retake classes as I worked toward my associate’s degree. I was astounded to find that I liked math. Something that hadn’t made sense to me when I was in high school was finally coming to life. Through more introspection, I’ve come to believe that my earlier challenges came from the disconnect between what I was experiencing in my life – the challenges of my upbringing – and what I experienced in the math classroom. Math just didn’t feel relevant to my life when I was a child, and that hindered my learning.

When I became a teacher, I saw how some of those disconnects were playing out with my students. I taught in Panama City, at a school where 97% of my students qualified for free and reduced lunch. When I’d read a math word problem that was about purchasing ski equipment, for example, it was obvious to me that most of my students couldn’t make sense of that. They barely knew what skiing was. A student raised her hand and said, “Mr. Livingston, I’m confused. Why would somebody spend that much money on a shirt?” The word problem that was meant to give her access to the material was actually deterring her, because the context was so irrelevant to her life. 

Our district’s math curriculum really sparked for me at the time, because it showed me actionable ways to connect math learning with my students’ lives and pointed me toward a more culturally responsive practice. Because of my own experience, I’d intuited that we need to make our material connect to our students’ real world context, even before I learned this truth as a pedagogical pillar. Those intentional points of connection grant many of our students access to the learning. As I grew as an educator, I formalized my understanding of the value in building bridges between students’ lives and math content and developed a humanity-first approach to teaching math. 

This approach continues to feed my instructional leadership in my role as an assistant principal. Just like my students, my teachers are approaching the teaching of mathematics from so many backgrounds, different levels of experience and awareness. And, especially now, our teachers are under a level of stress and anxiety. 

As a leader, I see myself as first and foremost respecting the humanity of mathematics. I need to keep my teachers centered as people in my own coaching and instructional moves. By doing so, I can help all of my teachers move toward the ultimate goal of supporting every student in building their own connections with math.

3 keys to humanity-centered leadership in math:

1. Invest in developing shared values across your team.

To build an empowering schoolwide math culture, I believe we need to start by discussing the big questions with our staff. The biggest questions! Questions like: How do you define mathematics? What do you see as its role in education? The foundation to a strong math practice is a shared belief system. I need to make sure my teachers really understand and believe in the idea that making math relevant to our students’ lives is necessary to equitable instruction. Investing in giving your staff time to reflect, discuss and experience values-based PD is at the core of this work.

2. Embrace patient, incremental change.

Once we’ve invested in developing shared beliefs, and we know where the target is as a staff, it’s up to me to find every opportunity I can to move people toward that target. My most valued guide in this work is the NCTM publication Principles to Action: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All.

Every year, I ask the staff to implement another effective teaching practice from that framework. I let them know that this is the lens by which I will critique their work. I scaffold best practices through my coaching conversations. We’re slowly deepening content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge in an incremental way that brings the whole staff along. I seek to move the needle one year at a time.

3. Seek opportunities for highest leverage: conversations and coaching.

I’m constantly asking myself this question: With the time I have, what’s the highest leverage point I can offer my math coach and my teachers to move the needle? 

I believe it takes a thousand conversations to enact change. In a coaching conversation, I hold back critique often. Every leader and educator knows that when we’re looking for something to criticize in the classroom, we can always find it. We can question every teaching move, we can probe with our own questions like, “Why did you do A instead of B?” But teachers, like all of us, can only absorb so much in one conversation. In any coaching conversation, I am trying to think of the one, highest-leverage thing I can say to a teacher to focus their attention on a single, actionable next step for improving their practice. And I remember that we’re going to keep having more conversations and more opportunities. 

An even higher-leverage move than my own conversations with teachers is the choice to invest in math coaching. I make sure that we have a math coach that shares our values, has a deep pedagogical understanding and passion, and then I give them all the resources and time I can. We need to invest in the adults who can lead our teachers. 

Mathematics is so deep that you can spend a lifetime in it and still feel like you’ve only scratched the surface. So, every experience I have – teaching it, coaching, leading as an administrator – helps deepen my appreciation. I love leading. I love teaching. It’s my passion. And I hope that by keeping my teachers in mind as individuals, I’m sharing that passion so they can continue to share that passion with our students.

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