Ma(th)2ink: My Journey to a Math Thinking Classroom
Written by: Dr. Sheila Akinleye
Let’s face it, although we should, we don’t recommend teaching careers to our best and brightest. If you are believed to have the aptitude to become a scientist, engineer, or doctor, then that’s what people tell you, and that’s where you try to go. Especially if you are African American or another racial or ethnic minority. So, I never thought I’d become a teacher. It just wasn’t on my radar. I came to be a teacher later in life because I wanted to return home to help care for a sick parent and needed a job. I thought I’d be teaching physics and ended up teaching math. Almost 15 years later, I am still in the classroom teaching. Though I never really felt I was a very good teacher, and dreamed of doing other things, slowly, but surely, I realized I had found my calling. The events of 2020 made me determined to find out what that calling actually meant.
Throughout my teaching career, a large percentage of the students I taught had experienced serious trauma. Looking back, I realize now that I lacked confidence in my teaching ability, in part, because I spent so much of my time dealing with the effects of trauma on my students, and personal secondary trauma as a result. Trauma-informed instruction was unheard of and classroom management, or placating students into cooperating, was the major focus, not excellent math instruction. Further, there are so many moving parts to teaching, that there has long been controversy about where teacher influence on student achievement ends and begins.
2020 brought on a whole new set of trauma, one that was communal and defied explanation. My family and I buried my remaining parent and other loved ones. Through the political upheaval, funerals, and videos of people killed by police, I re-examined my role in it all. I began to wonder how my practice as a math teacher was making a difference—positive or negative—in the lives of my students. Was I maintaining the status quo or transforming lives? I concluded that I needed to change my instruction. My students were not experiencing the growth I believed they could. Throughout the following year I engaged in over one hundred hours of professional development, read numerous books, and perused various websites. My studies led me to explore instructional routines focused on promoting student thinking, which changed my perspective on math instruction.
I began to wonder how my practice as a math teacher was making a difference – positive or negative – in the lives of my students. Was I maintaining the status quo or transforming lives?
The purpose of this blog series is to tell the story of why and how I embarked on the journey to change my instruction, beginning here with my reasoning for doing so. This work will explain the process I used to become a transformational math teacher, including what transformational teaching means in the math classroom and the impact it has had on my students. Along the way, I will cite and detail the work of math educators, such as Jo Boaler (2016), Peter Liljedahl (2021), and others who greatly contributed to my understanding and the approach I developed. I came to learn a lot about trauma and its effect on learning thanks to the work of Bessel Van der Kolk (2014) and Becky Bailey (2014).
Finally, my hope is that this work will inspire others to embark on a similar journey. Feeling inspired? Tweet me @DrSheilaRuth to share where you are on your journey!