I am a passionate, devoted, and effective educator. I have taught a wide variety of math classes at different levels at CityTech. Regardless of the course, I enjoy experimenting with different ways of introducing new topics and getting the most out of my students.
One of the most important things I can do for my students is to make connections that acknowledge their humanity and support their learning. I do my best to create environments where students bring what they can offer to the table and feel comfortable being themselves. Connections can be personal and somewhat abstract. I focus on two concrete primary objectives to create opportunities for students to connect with course material, with their own ideas of learning, with each other, and with me. These objectives are, of course, inter-related: one is making education accessible, the other is fostering independence.
1. Make education accessible
I am a strong proponent of accessible and open education. I actively strive to make my courses work for all my students, both inside and outside of the traditional classroom. Making education accessible is an objective that can be addressed by removing barriers at many levels.
(a) Be someone students can trust
Learning requires taking risks. Students need an instructor they feel has their best interest at heart. Being nice does not make someone a good teacher, but it is a good place to start. I try to earn students’ trust by being open, available, and respectful. I do my best to get to know my students on a personal level and help them get to know me—as a person, not an authority figure. This can be as easy as asking a student’s major, writing “Let’s talk,” on a quiz before returning it, or beginning an answer with, “That’s a great question.” I also build opportunities for more connections to be made through work done in and outside the classroom. For example, students’ first assignment is to introduce themselves to the class in an OpenLab post. Naturally, when students feel relaxed and safe, they are more willing to take the risks that support their learning.
(b) Make math make sense
Removing a barrier between a student and math content is easier said than done, particularly by someone for whom math already makes sense! But many students come to a college math class with baggage. They have no expectation that math should make sense—sometimes because it didn’t make sense to their school teachers themselves and sometimes because their school teachers had countervailing pressures. No wonder so many students suffer from math anxiety. In any event, it is our job as math educators to right this wrong. I work to convince my students that make math should make sense, that they should approach it with curiosity and a critical eye, that it is their right to demand that it make sense, and that they are capable of understanding. I sometimes start with content students have captured and slowly build on it by asking leading questions to expand their understanding. Other times I will start with a real-world problem of interest to students and have them attack it in a step-by-step way that builds their understanding of the solution’s theoretical underpinnings as well as its connections to the outside world. Students must learn to think critically, to ask, “Why should this be true?” and to be precise in their language.
(c) Open up the pedagogy
Open pedagogy refers to a host of strategies at different levels. It includes using free course materials as well as re-thinking classroom dynamics and activities. Open pedagogy offers one of the easiest and most concrete approaches to removing barriers between a student and their learning. For example, free, high-quality, online textbooks on many topics are available and should be used whenever possible to remove financial barriers. CityTech’s OpenLab is an example of an online tool that can be used to extend the classroom outside its walls. Online homework provides instant feedback to students and web-based activities take learning into a virtual realm where today’s students are already at home. Communication between instructor and student and among students themselves is no longer confined to class time, office hours, or even email. Stronger connections are possible. There is no limit to the benefits to students when the traditional boundaries of the classroom are blurred in careful and constructive ways.
2. Foster independence
The transition from high school to college can take some time, even for older students. Through specific and targeted assignments, students learn to collaborate effectively and to take ownership of their own learning.
(a) Make expectations clear
From day one, students should know exactly how a semester will proceed and what is expected of them to succeed. This information should be made clear and available for students to refer to throughout the semester. I happen to have higher and more specific expectations than many of my students are used to when it comes to their writing, so it is very important that I make these explicit on the first day and on an ongoing basis during my classes. I believe in complete transparency and in sharing rubrics and scoring tools whenever they are available. There should never be any questions when a student completes an assignment or any surprises when it is returned to them. Further, students should know that they are entitled to this transparency and should demand it whenever anything is not 100% clear. Naturally, this supports and is supported by having an instructor they trust.
(b) Hold students accountable
Students can be held accountable for their effort and for their learning in different ways. Ultimately, a continuous and detailed feedback loop is important so that they know whether expectation are being met. Traditionally, this feedback loop might be confined to an individual instructor and the student but through open pedagogy, it can be expanded. Online homework gives students instant feedback and helps students hold themselves accountable; targeted group assignments help students hold each other accountable. Ultimately, the more students are involved in the process, the more they are able to assess their own progress and performance.
(c) Teach students to learn how to learn
Students are not always familiar with what it feels like to understand something and might hesitate to take risks. Especially in math, many are not aware that it is possible to have a deep understanding of how concepts are connected; their experience is often more with a superficial understanding of rote procedures. Often, there is a breakdown of understanding of these rote procedures that leads students to have anxiety about math in general. Learning how to learn—and what it feels like to understand something in a deep way—goes hand-in-hand with making math make sense above. We need to give students as many opportunities as possible to feel what it feels like to understand something—to push and test that understanding—and to feel comfortable with not understanding it yet. Employing active learning strategies and approaches for different types of learners helps create these necessary opportunities in class. Teaching students the patience to read, pause, think, and test themselves helps support this independence outside of class. Having an instructor they can trust is critical for taking these risks.