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Christine Oster, elementary teacher, Bloomington, Indiana


Christine Oster
Elementary teacher
Bloomington, Indiana
April 2002

Chris Oster began her career as a kindergarten teacher in 1970, partially fulfilling her fifth-grade classmates' prediction that she would someday be teacher of the year. She continued to teach throughout the 1970s, first in Cincinnati, Ohio, then in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and finally in Belmont, Massachusetts.

After nine years as a kindergarten teacher, Oster decided to become a stay-at-home mother. She remained at home with her children for the next 13 years and enrolled in an M.B.A. program in operations management. However, after a brief time in business, she realized that she was born to be a teacher; in 1993 she returned to the classroom. Since then, she has taught all subjects in grades 1, 5, and currently grade 2 in Bloomington, Indiana.

Oster has a special affinity for mathematics, which began to develop when she discovered Mary Barrata Lorton's book, Math Their Way, in the late 1970s. She says, "This book opened my eyes to the possibilities of teaching math in a more interesting and developmentally appropriate way. Barrata Lorton stressed the importance of making students thinkers and problem solvers and this excited me." She became a proponent of Barrata Lorton's philosophy; after Barrata Lorton's death, she became a close friend and collaborator of Kathy Richardson, who had taken over from Barrata Lorton. In the intervening years, Oster has worked closely with Richardson, doing Mathematical Perspectives workshops for elementary teachers all over the United States. Oster notes that her relationship with Richardson and the Mathematical Perspectives workshops has sustained her enthusiasm for teaching mathematics. For Oster, the continuous communication with Richardson is the single most important thing that has helped her maintain that enthusiasm.

Among her biggest challenges is time. "There isn't enough time to do everything you want to do and do it well," she insists. "Also, it's important to give children adequate time to explore and to build their own [conceptual] frameworks, be in disequilibrium, figure it out, come back, think about it some more, and so on. . . . Too often we move children along before they are ready to go on." Her solution to this challenge is to focus on such core concepts as place value. For Oster, coverage of topics is not nearly as important as developing depth of understanding of core concepts.

Oster realizes that a beginning teacher has difficulty teaching everything in the textbook. But wanting to follow the textbook while learning what teaching is all about is natural. Her advice for beginning teachers is to "step back and ask yourself what is really important, what are the core concepts, and how can you teach so that students develop real understanding of those important concepts." She also urges novice teachers to use different types of manipulative materials to develop the core concepts. Oster believes that teachers should determine their students' thinking, teach them at the edge of their understanding, and then help them further develop their thinking.

Oster notes that she is still teaching because "I can make a difference and I know I am making a difference when a parent tells me, as one did recently, that 'Johnny loves to come to school!'" She adds, "If you're looking for fulfillment in your life, try teaching. With the exception of parenting, nothing is harder or more rewarding than teaching!"

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