3 ways to develop and support math educators right now

As a K-12 STEM educator who partners with schools, districts and networks to develop inclusive, responsive and engaging mathematics for kids, I get to work with so many different teachers and teacher teams. Without a doubt, this is a challenging time to choose teaching or to renew one’s commitment to teaching. So I am sensitive to teachers’ feelings of depletion, overwhelm and various states of fatigue (e.g., “changing-priorities fatigue,” “data fatigue” or “new-curriculum fatigue”). In response to these lived experiences, I’ve modified my approach and have considered how our work together must change. Here are three ideas to help support teachers in the current moment:

1. Position math coaching as an exchange. When I offer coaching work or development work to teachers, I feel compelled to offer an exchange. When teachers take time away from the existing demands of classroom teaching to meet with me and colleagues, I feel compelled to add some real value to their lives. Maybe this means removing a task from their existing workload so that they can attend more fully to our shared work. I might acknowledge the feelings I am hearing among teachers and then ask, “What can I take off your plate? What do you need help with? What task feels overwhelming that we can think through together?” In this way, I am positioning myself as a thought partner in thinking through math teaching and learning.

2. Give feedback-agency back to teachers. If I’m invited, or asked, to observe math instruction and offer feedback to teachers, I want them to tell me what kind of feedback they most want. I might say, “As you know, I’m coming tomorrow to watch your second period class, and I’d love to know what you want me to look for or listen for. That’s the feedback I’ll give you in our debrief.” It’s increasingly rare for teachers to receive low stakes, high-value, non-evaluative feedback that they themselves can shape. So this feels like a space where we could add some real value to teachers’ professional lives.

As a teacher developer, I invite teachers to tell me how to focus my observer’s gaze and make my feedback particularly relevant to their development as a teacher. In many cases, teachers are not aware that different kinds of feedback exists, so it often helps them for me to offer a short set of examples:

  • I could focus on discourse (who says what, how talk works in your classroom, how equitable or distributed the talk among all students is in the community).
  • I could focus on the mathematical task (what you are asking kids to think about or do, how students interpret the task, how you launch the task, how you establish criteria for success).
  • I could focus on representing kids’ ideas (which ideas get recorded and made public, what happens to concepts-in-development, what happens to partial attempts and strategies that are abandoned).
  • I could focus on something you are working on right now as a teacher and collect some data for us to study together.

3. Remember what it feels like to create new math together. It’s all too easy to focus our time together on planning upcoming lessons, routines or units or analyzing the learning of kids. Those are both important spaces to develop and support teachers. But it’s still so important for us to pause and do mathematics together ourselves, particularly the math we are asking students to do. When we use our time with teachers to create some relevant math together we a) help teachers connect with their own journey as mathematicians b) remind ourselves of the idiosyncratic, creative and typically nonlinear ways that real humans solve problems and c) remind of the joy, beauty, power and deep satisfaction that “cracking” a piece of mathematics can offer us. If depletion, overwhelm and fatigue are in fact the feelings many teachers are experiencing, doing some specific and useful math together can generate a different, more positive set of feelings to tap into.