Making an Art Out of Teaching Math
- Expertise: Math Instruction
- Position: Instructional Coach
- District: Pocahontas County School District, Buckeye, W.Va.
In most math classes in Pocahontas County, W.Va., students aren’t taking notes from the board. They’re not listening to a teacher lecture.
Instead, small groups in middle and high school classrooms discuss and debate: What’s this problem asking? What’s one approach we could try? Sometimes, students get things wrong or hit a dead end—then they come back and try again. Teachers say that the classrooms hum with energy.
“We have really tried to get away from drill and kill,” said Laurel Dilley, a math and computer science teacher at Pocahontas County High School.
“We rarely do that in any math classroom anymore, and Joanna has been the push for that.”
Joanna is Joanna Burt-Kinderman, the district’s math instructional coach. She’s introduced a problem-based system of professional development that calls on teachers to identify challenges in their classrooms, collaborate on solutions, and iterate.
Burt-Kinderman, 41, who grew up in Pocahontas County and attended its rural schools, is driven by the idea that teaching math should empower students and teachers alike.
“If you’re trying to come in and say, ‘I have a better way to teach than you do,’ you’re totally going to fail,” she said. “We have to be led by the teachers. We have to be able to really trust that they know their troubles.”
That strategy has changed the way math teachers work with students in Pocahontas County. In math classes, students wrestle with tough problems together and persist in reasoning them through. Middle and high school math test scores have risen from around the average for the state to among the top in West Virginia. And in a district that has struggled to retain math teachers in the past, teachers now say they feel professional ownership of their subject.
Lessons from the Leader
- Model Coaching on Good Teaching: Teachers need a safe space and respectful community to explore ideas that won’t all be “right.” Give them challenging problems to grapple with collectively and a license to learn through mistakes.
- Give Students and Teachers Ownership: Students need incentive and support to become agents of their own learning, and so do teachers. Teachers should define the problems that need solving in their classrooms, then work together to test and revise their improvement strategies.
- Use a Strength-Based Approach: In the journey of improvement, pay at least as much attention to strengths as failures. Name, celebrate, elevate, and double down on the best of student and teacher practice.
Letting Teachers Lead
The jump in math scores over the past decade is a feat for the small, rural county, the state’s least densely populated. The community, surrounded by national forest land, is home to one of the world’s largest radio telescopes at the nearby astronomy research center, the Green Bank Observatory. The children of scientists from the center attend the same schools as employees of the ski resort in the nearby Allegheny Mountains and timber-industry workers. In Pocahontas County, where the majority of the district’s 1,025 students receive free or reduced-price lunch, the public schools are an equalizer, said Burt-Kinderman—and a major employer, as well.
A decade ago, Burt-Kinderman had recently moved back to the county with her family, after teaching math in Georgia and Virginia and living abroad for several years. She was working as a media specialist and teaching one algebra course at a middle school. But Burt-Kinderman had been developing an idea—about a more teacher-centered, job-embedded type of professional development. It might change the way teachers learned, and in turn, the way they taught.
She pitched it to Terrence Beam—then director of federal programs, now the superintendent.
Beam admits he was a little skeptical of dialing up coaching feedback at first. High school teachers see themselves as authorities in their subjects. Most have content expertise. “Trying [to get] them to look at doing things a little bit differently is sometimes not easy,” he said.
But Burt-Kinderman didn’t want to prescribe solutions. When she got the go-ahead to start the work with the 9th grade math faculty, the goal was to figure out what was bothering teachers and working with them to fix it, one-on-one and in professional-development meetings. She asked for initial funding from Beam—not for materials but to pay the teachers for their time spent out of school, in professional learning.
Burt-Kinderman homed in on the math concepts that teachers said just “weren’t sticking” with students. Together, she and teachers dove deep into those lessons. What about them was working? What wasn’t? Burt-Kinderman came into classrooms to model new instructional approaches or observe and offer feedback while teachers tested them out.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Veteran teacher Teresa Rhea said using new strategies could be overwhelming and frustrating. But Rhea said it’s been worth it. “I would never go back to teaching like I did before.”
Burt-Kinderman wanted teachers to see her—and their colleagues—as thought partners, she said. The coaching program has since expanded throughout the middle and high school, and now Burt-Kinderman has started working with elementary teachers as well. At the high school, the culture shift is clear.
“In other schools, maybe I’d be embarrassed to go admit that I didn’t know exactly how to do [something]. … But I don’t feel like that here,” said Dilley, the math and computer science teacher. “I feel like [my colleagues would] be like, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting, let’s talk about it.’ And [Burt-Kinderman] has fostered that. I don’t think we would be like that with each other if it wasn’t for her bringing us together as a family, as a department.”
Teachers in West Virginia kicked off last year’s wave of protests, going on strike for higher pay and better school conditions. Teacher recruitment and retention remain major challenges. In 9th grade math, about a third of teachers across the state aren’t certified to teach the subject. Ticking off the barriers to getting and keeping certified math teachers, Beam noted Pocahontas County’s remote location and sparse population.
“But we’ve been able to maintain fully certified math teachers in our county, which is very unusual for West Virginia,” he said. “Joanna’s leadership has helped do that.”
Burt-Kinderman emphasized, though, that a supportive professional environment isn’t a cure-all. She had some teachers who felt torn about attending after-school PD, because it meant a loss in income. Most teachers in the county work a second job, she said.
“They really wanted to do this work, but it’s tough when you can go to the ski resort and wait tables and make more money,” she said.
Burt-Kinderman took part in the strikes, traveling with her two daughters—then ages 8 and 10—to the state capital. Teacher turnover is directly linked to the pay raises that educators were fighting for, she said.
“When your own compensation package is so low, and then your benefits package starts to get scraped away, and then you have all of the normal problems of teaching and learning in a state with huge opioid problems, huge poverty problems—you really can wear people out,” she said. “Time after time, I’ve seen really great folks leave the profession.”
Burt-Kinderman valued growing up in Pocahontas County, an economically diverse area, where children from comfortably middle-class families and children who had grown up in poverty went to the same public schools. Her mother was a teacher who started a leadership program for local girls, and her father founded and ran community radio stations.
When she left for college and arrived at Haverford, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, she experienced some culture shock. “The only folks that I met who knew about the place where I grew up had come on Habitat [for Humanity] trips,” Burt-Kinderman said.
In an intro to calculus course at Haverford, she started to understand how different her K-12 math education had been from many of her peers’. But the class, taught by “just a truly incredible teacher,” ignited a love of math she never had as a high school student. At Haverford, she also read the book that would inspire her to become a math teacher—Radical Equations, civil rights leader Bob Moses’ work on raising math literacy in poor communities.
She started thinking about a strong math foundation as a matter of justice and equity, a doorway to civic participation. “If your math literacy isn’t strong enough, you can’t poke holes in analysts’ arguments about the economy. You can’t look at data presentations and realize that someone could be manipulating you,” said Burt-Kinderman.
Those skills—“reading something critically, listening to something critically, finding a better way … those are the kinds of skills that inherently we want to be focusing on in math class,” she said.
How do teachers change the goal of math class from answer-getting to reasoning? It started with overhauling the curriculum.
We have to be led by the teachers. We have to be able to really trust that they know their troubles.
When Burt-Kinderman started as a math coach, the state was moving from a subject-based progression—the traditional Algebra 1, geometry, Algebra 2—to an integrated-math sequence that wove together topics each year. Pocahontas County had to follow suit.
But the district didn’t buy textbooks or use any one resource wholesale. Instead, it chose to build a curriculum, with Burt-Kinderman and the teachers working together.
Burt-Kinderman would dole out responsibilities to the teachers—for example, finding tasks that would teach statistics standards. Teachers searched for options, relying on materials from free sources like the Mathematics Vision Project, Desmos, and Illustrative Mathematics. They reconvened with the materials they’d found, tested them out together, and debriefed. The process worked because it was democratic, said Burt-Kinderman—teachers had a professional say.
In classrooms, she and the teachers have also developed tools that encourage students to ask questions and persevere through difficult problems. They’ve put in place grading structures that assess students’ persistence and thought process, rather than a correct answer.
Discussion, or math talk, is now central to lessons in Pocahontas County. Teachers say it’s engaging for the students. “My hour goes by so fast,” said Nebraska Scotchie, a middle school math teacher.
But there’s another reason why Burt-Kinderman wants to build math classes on sense-making and conversation.
“Appalachia’s a real talking culture. We’re oral history, we’re porch-sitters—still,” she said. “I think a lot of the stories told about Appalachia really paint our culture as weakness.”
Centering math talk as a pathway to academic success, she said, is “a rewriting, in our minds, of our culture as a strength.”
Learning From the Trenches
Now, she’s expanding her work outward. Burt-Kinderman has encouraged her teachers to attend regional and national math conferences, to share the strategies that have worked so well in Pocahontas County. Watching her staff bring expertise to those spaces, understanding that “success here is something that can translate,” is really rewarding, she said.
She’s working on two grant projects through the National Science Foundation: one to involve more rural, first-generation students in STEM, the other to develop a statewide math master-teacher network.
Matthew Campbell, an assistant professor of math education at West Virginia University who is working with Burt-Kinderman on the master-teacher grant, said that she is an ideal person to be leading this work.
She’s built relationships not just with teachers across the state but also K-12 officials and people in higher education. But she believes in learning from what teachers are doing in the trenches, Campbell said. She thinks about building this network in the same way she envisions classroom practice—raising up best practices and working together toward improvement elsewhere.
“There’s a lot to learn from and build from, in terms of what’s going on here,” said Campbell. “It’s not a matter of some directive coming in to save West Virginia.”