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It’s Elementary! Rethinking the Role of the Elementary Classroom Teacher

Gojak_Linda-100x140By NCTM President Linda M. Gojak
NCTM Summing Up, May 8, 2013

Early in my career, the principal of my school shared The Animal School: A Fable, written in the 1940s by George Reavis, assistant superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools. At the time I was teaching in a fifth-grade self-contained classroom in a K–5 school. That story made a deep impression on me and strongly influenced how I thought about my students—their talents and interests. I have heard The Animal School many times since then. Whether you are familiar with the fable or not, it is worth reading.

Recently I have been thinking about this fable in relation to teachers rather than students. I spend a lot of time working with elementary teachers. I attend conferences where I hear messages about the need to support elementary teachers or improve mathematics instruction in the elementary grades. The good news is that we recognize that the early foundation that students establish in mathematics is critical. Ideally, in the elementary grades, students learn that mathematics makes sense, develop an understanding of the fundamental structures of mathematics, and form positive attitudes about the importance of mathematics and their ability to be successful in mathematics. The not-so good news is that we have not come to realize that the expectation for the typical elementary grades teacher to teach as many as five different subjects a day does not support providing the solid foundation in many subjects, but particularly in mathematics.

Much like students in The Animal School, elementary teachers are expected to be good at everything. In their undergraduate preparation, they may be required to take only two mathematics courses—usually a content course and a methods course—yet they are responsible for teaching mathematics in a way that will develop deep understanding in their students. Additionally, they are assigned to teach all major subjects to a heterogeneous group of students, and in many cases, their effectiveness is evaluated according to their students’ performance on high-stakes assessments. Imagine preparing to teach five different subjects each day!

In the past decade, we have made progress with successful models for elementary mathematics coaches and mathematics specialists in every elementary school—it is now time to do more. Here are five reasons:

  1. Young children’s understanding of important mathematics concepts is very fragile. To develop deep conceptual understanding and link it to strategies and skills, instruction must carefully build understanding of key mathematical ideas. Doing so takes careful, reflective planning. The reality is that when teachers are responsible for teaching multiple subject areas, they do not have enough time to plan the kind of instruction that this type of learning needs.
  2. Meeting the diverse needs of students in our classrooms requires specialized pedagogical content knowledge. The traditional show-and-tell method of teaching and learning mathematics has not been successful, and efforts to change have not made a major impact. If we want teachers to consider and apply best instructional practices, they must have time to focus on that type of instruction.
  3. Unlike many middle school and high school classrooms, in which students are assigned homogeneously to courses on the basis of their mathematics performance, students in elementary classrooms are heterogeneously grouped. Teachers must work with students with wide ranges of ability. One solution is to tell teachers to differentiate instruction. Truly differentiated instruction is not only time-consuming, but it takes an incredible amount of pedagogical content knowledge.
  4. Arguments against subject-area specialists at the elementary grades often center on tradition and cost. Traditionally the theory has been that young children work best with one adult tending to their needs. In this day of child care, working parents, and extended families, the reality is that most children are under the care of multiple adults. The same can be true in school. There are successful models for modified differentiation in the elementary school that consider the importance of nurturing students. Schools that have adopted a modified departmentalization structure have done so with little or no additional cost. The biggest cost, and a potential benefit, is more flexibility on the part of the faculty and staff and more responsibility for students.
  5. The role of professional learning communities becomes essential and more focused. Teachers can join subject-matter professional organizations and specialize their professional development. Themes such as cross-disciplinary units and student needs can be discussed in PLCs that give teachers opportunities to be experts in their areas while still planning together.

It is time to rethink the structure of elementary education, the preparation of future elementary teachers, and realistic job expectations for teachers. The future success of students depends on their experiences in the early grades. If we expect young students to have a solid foundation in mathematics, they must be taught by teachers who deeply understand mathematics concepts and who are passionate about mathematics. Our teachers deserve no less. Our students deserve no less. The time to make the change is now!

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