Elementary Math Teachers: Are They Missing Out?

A wonderful Twitter Math Camp brought enlightened and energized educators together this summer. Witnessing the event through the lens of social media, I saw charismatic teachers, mission-driven organizations, and thoughtful publishers taking bold steps to promote problem solving and achievement for all students. From my perspective, this event served as a microcosm of exciting new movements in mathematics education that are manifest in a growing number of video blogs, boutique conferences, and print publications that joyfully engage educators in the next generation standards. But there is a problem: these advances largely involve middle and high school educators, with elementary school teachers not yet included.

Only six of the 194 attendees at Twitter Math Camp self-identified as elementary school teachers. This is typical for such an event, and leaders in the education community should be concerned. Elementary school mathematics faces a set of circumstances that we must address in order to overcome our national malaise in student performance:

  • Elementary school teachers, practitioners of the noblest profession, have a great impact on their students.
  • Elementary school mathematics is usually taught by professionals who are responsible for every subject, and do not have special mathematics credentials.
  • Incoming elementary teachers receive about 18 months of preservice that cannot possibly cover all mathematics topics for every grade to which the teacher may be assigned.
  • Upper elementary mathematics topics, like fractions, are difficult for most adults. This includes adults who chose to become elementary school teachers. Our ubiquitous national refrain: “I am not good at math.”
  • Even though upper elementary math problems puzzle most parents, these same problems generally do not motivate math-minded adults. Dividing fractions does not excite the same interest as high-level dynamic geometry.
  • A growing number of middle and high school math specialists are embracing the next generation standards and are energized by the creative curriculum and learning processes. But. . .
  • Elementary math teachers are left out of the excitement, and many are having a difficult time adapting to new standards. They are not happy campers!

I challenge all of us who are involved in mathematics education to support elementary school teachers. I’ll start with myself. I taught grades K-6 and I treasure those years. At the same time, I know how demanding the job is. Driven to facilitate fabulous instruction, I often had the lights of my portable classroom glowing late into the night as I prepared for the next day. Eventually, I decided to channel my effort into publishing. With a mission to impact as many students as possible, I focused on helping other teachers succeed.

Now that I am an elementary mathematics developer with years of K-8 curriculum and technology publishing under my belt, I see that products must support teachers as much as they support students. My company’s resources must deliver embedded supports, every minute of every class day, to help elementary school teachers become confident and competent in teaching mathematics. Visit www.conceptuamath.com to see what we have created.

I encourage you to take on the challenge as well. Whether you are a mathematics specialist, a math coach, an administrator, or otherwise engaged in education, please consider how you can support your elementary teachers. These days, we are asking students to “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them” (as stated in the Common Core). Here’s the problem: we need to include elementary teachers in the excitement around mathematics education.  Let’s persevere in solving that problem, and in the process, keep the teacher in the equation.


Great thoughts here, Arjan. In our work in our district, we started noticing huge dividends when we started engaging teachers as learners - let them experience the mathematics and mathematical practices as learners, and then support how to bring those experiences to their students. It's not enough to support them with good resources (although these are critically important), but we must create believers who are confident and engaged in their own mathematical experiences and practices. Yes, let's all embrace this challenge!

As one of the 6 elementary teachers that attended TMC15 I can definitely say that anyone labeled as a K-5 educator would have benefitted tremendously. I think a big issue for the inclusion of elementary teachers, is that the majority of them don't identify with themselves as math teachers. They're generalist and attending a math conference will only help math. What about the other subjects they teach? I think that is where disconnect begins.
Many elementary schools are shifting to departmentalization of their 3-5 grades so teachers will become more specialized in a specific content area (somewhat like a MS model). But that still doesn't help build capacity in our K-2 teachers, where every teacher plans for 5 or more subjects.
I leave your post Arjan with more questions than answers, but questions we need answers to. Thanks for providing the platform to engage in this conversation and ensure that we continue to evolve and grow like our MS and HS counterparts.

Graham, you are pioneering the 3-act math movement from K-5. THAT'S the kind of action that will transform the field.

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