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What Motivates Teachers of Mathematics to Enter and Remain in the Profession?

Tom Cooney
April 2002
 

The teaching profession in general, and mathematics teachers in particular, are now in transition—or soon will be, with impending retirements, with fewer new teachers entering the profession, and with many teachers making career changes. This situation creates both a challenge and an opportunity. How can we sustain the interest of those who are already teaching, and how can we motivate others to join the ranks of mathematics teachers? Given that so many of our teachers are experienced and have a considerable amount of collective wisdom about teaching, what advice can they offer to teachers who are new to the profession? In an effort to tap the collective wisdom of experienced teachers and to address the concerns of many beginning teachers, we posed five important questions in the November issue of Mathematics Education Dialogues. 

More than 100 teachers offered their perspectives. In addition, members of the Mathematics Education Dialogues Panel interviewed 10 teachers to obtain more in-depth responses to the questions. (Brief essays about the 10 teachers and their philosophies of teaching, as well as audiotapes of the interviews, are on this Web site.) What follows is a summary of these responses.

What motivated you to become a teacher of mathematics? 

As one might expect, individuals were attracted to the teaching profession for a variety of reasons. Shareef Bacchus grew up on a sugar plantation in the British Caribbean, where the curriculum was based on the British system. Most students did not have access to reading materials, so understanding the relevance of the problems was difficult for them. Fortunately, Bacchus did have access to books that enabled him to understand the problems, even though he was not physically familiar with the problem situations. He used this understanding to explain to his friends what the problems meant and how to solve them. These experiences convinced him to become a mathematics teacher.

Susan Roosenraad, Cindy Chapman, and Ann Carlyle entered the teaching profession in part because options for women were limited, especially for those who excelled in mathematics. Eddie Kilpatrick became a mathematics teacher when he left the military because African Americans also had limited career choices at that time. Although societal circumstances may have influenced these individuals to become teachers, they soon became hooked on working with young people and finding an outlet for their love of mathematics.

Dick Caulfield's work with inner-city children while he was working in business motivated him to change careers and enter the teaching profession. Tiffany Taylor loved mathematics and wanted to make children think about what they were doing. She believed that she could make a difference in their lives. Kay Toliver and Christine Oster always knew that they wanted to become teachers, as did Cindy Chapman and Ann Carlyle. Other teachers, such as Judith Broadwin, were influenced by an inspiring high school teacher who communicated the beauty of mathematics. Nancy Nelson (Williamston, Michigan) was similarly inspired by one of her high school teachers.

Some teachers were explicitly attracted to teaching mathematics because of the nature of the subject itself. For example, Fran Teresi (Garrettsville, Ohio) was intrigued by mathematical patterns, whereas Bruce Allen (Westbrook, Maine) was attracted to the orderliness of mathematics.

What has sustained your interest in teaching mathematics? 

Teachers identified three main factors. The first is the thrill of watching students learn mathematics. Cindy Chapman relishes the children's joy in doing mathematics. "It's that celebration of their thinking that sustains my interest." The language that teachers often use to describe what sustains their interest is that of "making a difference in students' lives." Penelope Tolle (Silver Spring, Maryland) and Jerry Braun (Hays, Kansas) each believe that they make that type of difference. Kay Toliver was especially gratified when her students, who had a wide range of ability levels, demonstrated that they could learn mathematics and solve problems. Melissa Dushi (North Kingstow, Rhode Island) wrote about the joy that she sees in students' learning, especially when they started out believing they could not do well. Shareef Bacchus takes great pride in his students' ability to solve problems, especially when they use solution methods that he did not envision. The success of his MathCounts team and the enthusiasm of the students in the math club are significant motivators for Bacchus.

The second factor that sustained interest is the relationships that teachers formed with other educators. Dick Caulfield's interest in being a good mathematics teacher was supported through his interactions with colleagues who took their jobs seriously and thought of themselves as dedicated professionals. Christine Oster's close working relationship with a like-minded professional sustained her interest in teaching mathematics. Ann Carlyle and Judith Broadwin both emphasize the importance of networking with other professionals. Jim Austin (Louisville, Kentucky) also emphasizes that involvement in different types of professional development activities has helped sustain his interest in teaching.

A third factor that teachers mentioned is that they continuously learn new ideas about teaching and about mathematics from their classroom experiences. As Elizabeth Nettles (Yellow Springs, Ohio) notes, you can always learn something new, even about a subject you have taught for years.

To what extent do you think that parents in your community value their children's learning of mathematics? 

Many teachers that we interviewed found that parents support their individual efforts and appreciate the importance of mathematics in their children's lives. Nevertheless, Eddie Kilpatrick believes that visible parental support has changed over the years because life has become so much more complex. He thinks that parents remain interested in their children's learning but have a harder time expressing their support because they are so busy. Cindy Chapman finds that parents are really excited about what their children can do, even though they may not always understand the mathematics or their children's assignments.

Christine Oster tries to anticipate parents' questions and concerns and makes sure that she meets parents early in the school year to make them aware of her teaching philosophy, what she values, and how she organizes and conducts her class. Ann Carlyle states that the parents of many of her students had difficulty with mathematics in school and freely discuss that problem with their children and with her. But these same parents want something better for their children and recognize that mathematics is an important subject. They are delighted to see their children working on and enjoying very powerful problem-solving activities. Carlyle sees her challenge as one of helping parents make mathematics a part of their family life by playing games or measuring things. Kay Toliver believes that some parents do not fully comprehend the changes that have taken place in the teaching of mathematics; consequently, increased parent education is needed to help them understand that mathematics learning goes beyond arithmetic and memorization.

Many other teachers report that society or parents do not support their work. Jeanne Finch (Mt. Olive, Massachusetts) believes that society values mathematics teaching but that teachers themselves are generally unappreciated. Victoria Renteria (El Paso, Texas) thinks that society makes education an issue at election time, but legislators fail to support education adequately. Irving LaFleur (Manitowoc, Wisconsin) argues that society recognizes the value of mathematics teaching but is unwilling to treat teachers as professionals. Cecilia Nevarez (Van Nuys, California) believes that society gives only lip service to the importance of education. Jenna Morales (Rochester, New York) indicates that society thinks that a mathematics teacher has an almost magical quality that comes from secret knowledge and that this perspective masks teachers' contributions.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced as a teacher of mathematics? 

One of Eddie Kilpatrick's biggest challenges during his career was to persuade females and minority students to take advanced mathematics courses in high school. One of Tiffany Taylor's biggest challenges is to make the subject more intuitive for her students so that mathematics is not just a group of facts to memorize. Susan Roosenraad finds it challenging to stay current with an ever-changing field and to provide students with the kind of background that they need to succeed in college. She also finds that motivating students to do their homework and to take pride in what they do is challenging. Elaine King (Brewton City, Alabama) considers students' complacency to be her biggest challenge.

Dick Caulfield's biggest challenge was personal: putting into practice the many good ideas that he gained from attending professional meetings, reading journal articles, and reflecting on his practice with colleagues. Kay Toliver's greatest challenge was making middle school students realize that they can be successful in mathematics even though their past learning biographies might suggest otherwise. She has worked to develop techniques that engage students, to make mathematics come alive, and to enable students to see connections between mathematics and the real world. Judith Broadwin's biggest challenge was convincing administrators and colleagues that mathematics can be better taught using technology.

What advice do you have for a teacher who is just beginning his or her career as a teacher of mathematics? 

Teachers agree unanimously that young teachers should network with other teachers through professional development activities and by joining professional organizations. As Judith Broadwin recommends, "Never stop learning . . . take courses, join professional organizations, and read professional journals." Dick Caulfield agrees, and Ann Carlyle adds, "The best advice I can give young teachers is to find a group of colleagues they can share ideas with. Try what you know is best for you and then just listen and talk and share with other people." Eddie Kilpatrick suggests that beginning teachers stay out of the faculty lounge, join a professional association, and become involved with others who have similar interests. He emphasizes the importance of becoming involved with students' lives outside the school walls. Tiffany Taylor's advice for a first-year teacher is simple: "Tough it out. You can learn what works and what doesn't work. Everything will be better in the second year."

Cindy Chapman has a very simple piece of advice: Listen to your students. She appreciates that beginning teachers, just trying to survive, sometimes lose sight of the fact that their job is to teach so that their students can learn. Christine Oster asks teachers to ask themselves, "What is really important? What are the core concepts, and how can I teach so that students develop real understanding of those important concepts?"

Both Kay Toliver and Susan Roosenraad emphasize the importance of maintaining high expectations for students and remaining steadfast that all students can learn regardless of their mathematical biographies. Perhaps Shareef Bacchus put it most succinctly and simply when he said, "Don't be satisfied with mediocrity."

The Panel of Mathematics Education Dialogues would like to thank everyone who responded to the questions in the November issue and to thank the following teachers for their willingness to be interviewed and for their thoughtful responses.

 

Shareef Bacchus
Judith Broadwin
Ann Carlyle
Cindy Chapman
Dick Caulfield
Eddie Kilpatrick
Christine Oster
Susan Roosenraad
Tiffany Taylor
Kay Toliver

 



 

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