Equip Your Instructors to Teach Math

Topics: STEM, Curriculum and Instruction, Teacher Effectiveness

Studies say that students in the U.S. struggle in academic performance compared to students from some other countries, especially in problem-solving. The number of jobs in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields continues to grow, and the number of Americans prepared to take on these jobs is declining.

Assessment results in mathematics from the 2022 Nation’s Report Card showed that just 36 percent of fourth grade students and 26 percent of eighth grade students scored proficient or above in mathematics. This has implications for students’ success in college and career.

Students need a learning experience that focuses on 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem-​solving, collaboration, communication, and tech usage. And teachers must foster positive student attitudes toward mathematics by seeking out creative pedagogical practices that enhance the classroom environment.

Personal Experiences

Unfortunately, many teachers don’t have positive experiences in math learning. When I started my career in education as a math teacher, students came to me with gaps in understanding. Later, as an instructional coach and principal, it was the teachers I saw struggling; they either lacked understanding themselves or relied upon curricular resources that didn’t provide them with adequate support.

As part of my doctoral dissertation, I wanted to find out how new expectations for teaching and learning mathematics and changing curricula had affected teachers’ preparedness, pedagogy, and content knowledge surrounding math. I surveyed a group of six elementary teachers during the 2018–2019 school year to find out.

Participants in the study expressed a like or dislike of mathematics based upon their personal experiences and success with the subject as a student, which influenced their comfort level with teaching mathematics later in life. All said that math was very different when they were in school than it is now. A common refrain was, “I was not a fan of math as a student. It was so different then—everything was rote memory.”

Some participants expressed stronger feelings. “I hated it,” one said. “I really did. Things were taught differently than they are today. I remember math in school as teachers doing stuff on the board and talking, and that’s it. It was just, ‘This is what you need to know, and now you need to go do it.’ I literally had a fear of math, and I put up a wall.”

Teaching and Intervention

In the past, survey participants agreed, the subject wasn’t taught in a way that required deep thought, problem-​solving, application, and hands-on practice; you either got it or you didn’t. When you no longer did, you just stopped liking it.

There are more and better strategies to build mathematical knowledge today. Teachers said they felt math is more interesting and accessible to all students today; they also felt math is more fun to teach and more hands-on. Still, their comfort with instruction appeared to correlate with how well they did as students.

As instruction and expectations changed over the years, knowledge of the strategies needed to meet expectations hasn’t kept up, the teachers noted. They expressed a need for help in building their own conceptual knowledge and problem-solving in math, and many sought help with strategies and content through reading, watching videos, and observing trusted colleagues. Generally speaking, the older the participant, the fewer instructional strategies they knew.

Study participants routinely used formative assessments in planning to meet students’ needs and determining instructional practices, using feedback to plan lessons and adjust practices if needed. They also used the information to differentiate instruction and fill in gaps.

Participants took cues from students to assess their understanding and the effectiveness of lessons. Exit tickets were a common assessment tool for gauging understanding and planning instruction—sometimes included in lesson design, and other times, made up on the spot.

Study participants used data to plan whole-group, small-group, and individual instruction. Pedagogical practices for classroom management varied, but all focused on setting expectations, structures, and routines. “You have to understand how they learn,” one teacher said. “You have to have very clear expectations.” 

Poor Preparation

Of the teachers interviewed, none felt that their teacher preparation program had prepared them adequately for today’s classrooms or to teach mathematics. “I didn’t feel like I learned how to teach math in college at all,” one said. “Not even a little bit.”

All but one of the participants interviewed said they weren’t comfortable with mathematics concepts beyond middle school. They saw secondary math as academically challenging and might not have received effective instruction in mathematics themselves. If teachers’ grasp of math content isn’t at least a level higher than what they teach, they might struggle to provide high-level instruction or help students master Common Core standards.

Accessing quality professional development (PD) in mathematics is a struggle, participants said, and the opportunities provided are rarely adequate. Hands-on PD that models instruction, emphasizes peer collaboration, and offers classroom support is most effective, one teacher said: “What has been the most helpful is when you can see it in action, as opposed to just either reading an article about something or having somebody lecture you about something.” 

Study participants complained that much of their supplemental learning had come from research done on their own time, with their own money, and often outside the district. “I am constantly looking things up,” one said. “Professional development doesn’t just happen,” said another. “You have to actively seek it out.”

Applying the Findings

I took the survey information and used it to reengineer how we support teachers at Norwood Elementary. I asked teachers to think differently about teaching practices. I persuaded the district to allocate some of its Title I funds for an instructional coach to support math teaching and learning, gave teachers space to experiment with teaching practices, and organized their schedules to maximize planning time and professional development.

One-and-done PD proved ineffective for math teaching. We instead provided teachers with ongoing, tailored PD that helps them learn, plan, and model implementation of math resources with a focus on discourse and differentiated instruction. They get implementation support from interventionists, the instructional coach, an EL specialist, and special educators.

We schedule tailored support sessions by grade level, and I structure curriculum meetings in the same way. We collect exit tickets and use them to formulate next steps. The leadership team puts out a monthly email featuring effective instructional routines they have witnessed in math classes and suggestions for improvement.

During leadership meetings, we dig into school data to find trends, bright spots, and areas ripe for improvement. In faculty meetings, I implement new protocols and encourage discourse. Teachers appreciate the feedback and are eager to improve instruction.

We were ultimately able to take Norwood quickly from 18 percent proficiency in mathematics to 38.5 percent proficiency on the 2023 Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System, the state’s standardized assessment in mathematics—an increase of 20.5 percentage points.

Suggested Supports

Here are some recommendations for supporting math instructors that came out of the study and my experience:

  • Build conceptual mathematics understanding. Teachers felt there was a lack of focus on mathematics resources, support for teaching practices, and professional development around building conceptual thinking and problem-solving.
  • Provide engaging, hands-on professional development opportunities. Teachers want to be able to see what expectations look like and get guided practice while engaged in the work. PD needs to be hands-on, ongoing, and differentiated, with continued coaching and support.
  • Provide time for collaboration. Participants felt that the best learning experiences came from their colleagues; they wanted to hear from others who are in the field and doing the work. Build time into their days to share and learn from peers.
  • Empower teacher leaders to drive change. Teachers sought out teachers they knew were knowledgeable in certain areas when they had questions or needed help. They also found observing others’ classrooms and lessons constructive.
  • Provide high-quality resources. Teachers spend a lot of their own time and money trying to find resources that align with expectations, not always knowing which will be effective. This frustrates them and can result in poor instruction.

Building leaders must set clear expectations and a strong vision for math instruction. When teachers feel that expectations are clear and know why they are working toward them, they are more likely to support the vision and move forward with their work.

Provide high-quality resources that align with expectations alongside high-quality PD that allows teachers to engage in hands-on learning with coaching, modeling, and peer collaboration. Teachers are more apt to integrate new practices if they have a picture of what they should look like.

Because of the systems and structures Norwood put in place, our teachers like to come to work. They are eager to apply, volunteer, or bid into positions at the school. We no longer have a lot of turnover; the teachers who come tend to stay, and retiring teachers often volunteer or substitute.

Expectations for teaching and learning mathematics have changed, and teacher preparation hasn’t kept up. Leaders in charge of planning professional learning should be aware that teachers want to grow their mathematics skills beyond where their own childhood educations left off.

Prepare and support teachers in this goal. Only then can they support and prepare students for the world ahead.

Sabrina Antonelli is principal of Norwood Elementary School in Warwick, Rhode Island, and a 2023 NAESP National Distinguished Principal.