Stories from the Field:

“We’re All Math People”

By Noah M. Wager


All teachers bring pieces of themselves to their classroom: their experiences, values, passions, and fears are just underneath the surface. It’s rare that someone is as open about those past experiences in an initial conversation as Kate was. Recently assigned to teach a self-contained classroom of sixth graders, she would be responsible for teaching all subjects, including math. When we first met as part of a network for school improvement in Philadelphia, she led with, “I was a horrible math student myself and my preference is to teach third grade literacy.” Her own teachers’ rigid instruction when she was a student left her feeling uneasy about the model of teaching she was working from. I knew our work together would have to address both how she perceived her skill set in math and her need to provide students with rigorous, standards-based instruction.

Our first coaching goal focused on planning instruction in rigorous math content so that students would demonstrate proficiency. While we had to analyze Pennsylvania’s sixth grade math standards and identify tasks that would help students master those standards, we also had to analyze Kate’s aversion to math. We discussed the Common Core Standards and the shifts in instruction needed to teach those standards. She grew to understand that the ways math was taught when she was a student aren’t what today’s students need to thrive in the twenty-first century. They need to problem-solve, apply concepts, and learn how to think mathematically, not just implement rote procedures. Kate committed to providing her students with a better experience than she had growing up.

Seeing that her students would not thrive with dry lessons, Kate wanted support with embedding rich tasks in her instruction. After we worked on incorporating tasks from Open Middle, which stimulate thinking because they have many possible “correct” strategies, approaches, and answers, Kate saw that students who would check out when given workbook problems were now drawn into the material. Students would make attempts at solutions and record their thinking. Kate would then push those students by asking, “Do you think there are other strategies or right answers?” For students who weren’t initially correct, she’d ask, “So what are you learning that will help you when you try again?” Students were buzzing with excitement to apply mathematical concepts, and setbacks seemed to make them stronger mathematicians.

We also leveraged a strategy called “my favorite no,” in which teachers share unnamed students’ work and facilitate a class discussion around the strengths of the work as well as mistakes that the whole class can learn from. Whereas some people view math as a simply right-or-wrong activity, Kate has learned to promote learning from mistakes and leaned into research around growth mindsets. She employed this strategy regularly and once shared a story: While having her students working on problems in class one day, a student made a mistake and said to her with a smile, “I bet this is your ‘favorite no.’” Instead of feeling ashamed about being wrong, students were leaning into the opportunity that mistakes provide.

Kate’s openness to take on a new challenge and adopt new beliefs and strategies helped her become a more reflective teacher who creates an environment in which her students persist through challenging tasks and learn from unsuccessful approaches. Her belief in herself and her students has grown to the point that now when she hears someone say “I’m not a math person,” she replies, “we’re all math people.”


This is just one example of how Partners supports educators to become change agents. To learn more about the services we provide, please see What We Do.