Joanna Burt-Kinderman believes teaching math can be an act of justice.
Studying math and education in college, she realized how a student’s academic future could be dictated by the foundation they had in the subject—a foundation students in the rural West Virginia county where she grew up hadn’t gotten.
“That really is about access to the American dream for everybody,” she said. “Can kids grow up and be whatever they want to be? Not if they don’t have good math teaching. They can’t.”
Now a math instructional coach in Pocahontas County, the district where she went to school, Burt-Kinderman is driven by the idea that teaching the subject should empower students and teachers alike. 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.
“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,” said Burt-Kinderman. “We have to be led by the teachers. We have to be able to really trust that they know their troubles.”
This strategy has changed the way teachers work with students. In math classes, kids wrestle with tough problems together and persist in reasoning them through. Middle and high school test scores in Pocahontas County have risen to among the top in the state. And in a district that has struggled to retain math teachers in the past, teachers say that they feel professional ownership of their subject.