How do we build math- and kid-positive department cultures?

I was pleased with the responses to my last post. A number of teachers reached out via twitter and comments, asking how they might build math- and kid-positive cultures in their own schools.

I can’t offer any large scale studies of the answer to this question, even though I am currently engaged in a research project that is trying to work with districts on similar issues. But I can share some of the experiences I had working with teachers in the Pacific Northwest toward this goal.

Gather invested colleagues around a common problem.

I always say, I have yet to meet a teacher who goes into the profession for the glamor or the money. Almost everybody who becomes a teacher wants to help kids. Find the folks whose heart is still in that. Find the ones who are willing and able to invest the time in their professional growth and look for a problem to work on.

That is what we did in the partnership project that went on for 6 years with some urban high schools. We started teachers at a school we called Septima Clark High. To get started on our work together, we used a process called “The 5 Whys” to try to get at the root of a problem that was bothering them. Their burning question was: why are so many kids failing 9th grade math?

First we brainstormed the answers to this question. I listened and recorded the brainstorm non-judgmentally and without conversation. This went on for over an hour, and we only got to a second level of “whys.” The result came to be known among us as “The Wall” because, as I wrote all the reasons on giant post it notes, they filled an entire wall. Seeing all the answers to this question was rather overwhelming.

The Wall

The next step in the process was to look at this vast list and identify the things we could actually do something about. I underlined these. A small fraction of the reasons were actionable, but they gave us a way in to make a plan and set goals.

We sorted the actionable reasons into categories. From this, the teachers arrived at two conclusions:

  • that their curriculum wasn’t engaging all students, and
  • they needed to update their teaching practices.

The process was vital to teachers’ sense of ownership over our subsequent work.

Work together on a productive framing of that problem, linked back to math teaching and learning.

It’s one thing to identify a problem, like a high failure rate in 9th grade math. It’s altogether another thing to come up with a productive framing of that problem. Problem framings are how we define the parameters of something.

All too commonly, it is easy to point fingers and play the blame game: prior teachers did not do their job; the promotion policies that pass kids along; a lack of academic role models in kids’ lives. These reasons made the teachers’ brainstormed list. But none of them supported anything actionable on the part of the teachers. On the other hand, things like “kids aren’t engaged in the mathematics” did provide inroads for the teachers. By pressing teachers on what they can do, the framing that came out of this observation was that classroom activities and structures needed to encourage more participation. That was something teachers could work on.

Get support to have the time and space to meet to work on that problem regularly.

The hardest part about this process is that there is no way around how time-intensive it is. We all know teachers’ days are already overly full, despite the myth of teaching as an “easy, kid-friendly schedule.” Time diary studies of teachers’ work show that they work long hours, fitting a lot in on schooldays, weekends, and summers.

This is where administrative support can help. If there is already professional development time designated for your school, see if you can repurpose it for your goals. Even one hour after school weekly can make a difference. The best situation is to have common planning time with your collaborators, but this is a tricky and even expensive investment for schools.

Set short term and long term goals for your work, and find resources.

Too often, educational reform is treated like an appliance that can be brought anywhere and work the same way every time. We expect schools and teachers to “try” something, as if it’s just a matter of flipping a switch and saying yea or nay.

Education, however, is a human endeavor. The specifics of any setting and situation matter a lot for what works and how to get it working. Change takes time, especially ones that press on teachers to examine their core assumptions about teaching, learning, and mathematics.

One of my former doctoral students, Nicole Bannister, studied the Septima Clark teachers for her dissertation. She writes about their learning process and how they found ways to see and support their struggling students in their classrooms.

Celebrate the small victories, because there will always be setbacks and challenges.

School was originally designed on the factory model. Knowledge was thought of as a product that teachers could give to students efficiently on a set schedule. We now know that learning does not work that way — deeper understandings that support retention and fluency with mathematics cannot simply be delivered.

Re-culturing teaching –– reimagining the relations among students, mathematics, and teachers, as well as the activities that happen in the classroom –– to support more effective learning  is challenging work. Fundamentally, it involves working against the institutional grain of schooling, so there will be setbacks and challenges. For this reason, the small triumphs cannot go unnoticed: the student who makes sense of an idea for the first time, the one who participates after a long period of silence, the eagerness students have for a certain problem or project. All of these moments matter and need to be shared with the team. Otherwise, a team risks discouragement and burnout.

Share your work to help build critical mass.

Even before any results came in, the Clark teachers worked hard to communicate what they were doing with colleagues and parents. They held a meeting in the school library one evening to explain their understanding of the failure rate problem and the work they were invested in addressing it. Having the community support mattered. Even skeptical parents were heard saying, “If the teachers are this excited about what they are doing, I won’t stand in their way.”

Eventually, the kind of results administrators care about came in too. In the 2004-05 school year, before the team’s work began, less than half of the students who entered ninth grade at or below grade level were promoted to 10th-grade math. The following academic year, 83%
of those students were promoted.


This was not about dummying down content. In fact, the mathematical depth of classroom activities increased, as did student participation.

During the next state testing cycle, the student gains at the school caught the attention of the district. As the above chart shows, we saw higher achievement among Black* students and low income students, two groups that were of concern in the school and district. Soon, other schools wanted to learn about their work. Clark became a place that administrators visited, as did other teams of teachers.

*   *   *

The ongoing challenge for departments that reculture is how to sustain that work over time. In the last post, I told you about Railside, a place where I studied and taught. They managed to sustain their work for over two decades before policy pressures undid significant aspects of their work. Maybe if we can get critical mass at a national level, we can convince more people that organizing teaching so kids can learn is a worthwhile investment.



* I use the term “Black” because some students were African and some were African American, but they generally referred to themselves as black.



11 thoughts on “How do we build math- and kid-positive department cultures?

  1. Ilana,
    This post is VERY useful to me, especially right now as we close out this year. I am going to write up a proposal that this kind of meeting / practice be part of our PD for the end / beginning of the school year.

    My PLC (Algebra 2) actually sat and did this without the structure on Wednesday. We are frustrated at the high failure rate and struggling to make changes in how we approach the learners and the material. This process you outline can give us a great way to get started in a formal manner.

    Thank you for posting it! I love to build better unicorns.
    *As to your use of “black”, I had one of our admins is who is black tell me that in her mind, the correct term is black; “African American” is used by people who are trying too hard. That taught me that it is important to ask her what she prefers, and my learners what they prefer before I assume things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is great, Ilana. The developing-a-problem-statement piece really resonates with me. A colleague of mine told me once “if you’re focusing on everything, you’re not focusing on anything.” It’s true, he may have stolen that quote from a self-help book but it rings true for math departments that attempt to do everything to solve everything. Failing 9th grade algebra, poor attendance, lack of discourse, etc. are all things that can be identified, gameplanned around, and measured, and revisited. Great stuff here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It also gives a larger purpose for the professional development you do pursue. In our project, the teachers’ goals helped us specify the kinds of professional development that would be most useful. They also had a purpose in sharing out what they did learn and became more open about the questions they had — both critical for improving together.

      Thanks for reading, Geoff.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Again, you raise some very important points for (math) coaches or lead learners everywhere.

    At first reading, this is what I have gathered.

    1) Lead with the need, not the ‘tool’.
    2) Assume positive intentions with colleagues – “I believe any question coming from a group of teachers with respect to ‘change’, is about trying to make sense of how it will ultimately help our students”
    3) Co-develop an actionable common goal – work together to achieve – check back often — In our district we call this a Challenge of Practice (CoP).
    4) Private victories before public ones (and celebrate them).
    5) Include the home community to build awareness and momentum with your co-constructed goal.
    6) Be aware that unsuccessful implementation of policy is often a complaint away – Plan and treat others accordingly.
    7) Teaching is a personal act. When engaged with EDchange it often creates ‘cognitive dissonance’ in teachers, admin, and parent(s)/guardian(s). Depending upon the depth of the EDchange results may not be evident immediately or feel natural. Take time to nurture, grow and celebrate (see #1)

    I understand I am applying my own lens when reading your article and am wondering if there is something you feel I could learn more about to further bring my ‘coaching lens’ into focus.

    Thanks for your timely and thought provoking posts, Ilana.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like your summary, Paul. Thanks for contributing. I hope this is helpful to teacher leaders and coaches. I find they are often asked to work to raise the bottom rather than lift the top, and I think we need more work lifting the top.

      Liked by 1 person

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