Several years ago, former fourth-grade teacher Tracy Johnston Zager took an informal survey of two groups of people to find out how they feel about math: mathematicians and teachers who teach math. She discovered that while mathematicians used words like “beauty” and “wonder” to describe math, teachers recalled “dread” and “fear.” These words aligned with what Zager had observed in her job mentoring student teachers who expressed similar reservations about math. Teachers’ sentiment toward math is noteworthy because research has shown that adults can transfer anxiety to kids.
As teachers try to improve how they teach math by applying numeracy, inquiry-based learning, productive failure and complex instruction, the idea of how to become better math teachers is gaining a wider audience. But Zager writes in her book, “We moved right into a new way to teach math, without addressing teachers’ personal histories with and understanding of mathematics.”
Zager traveled around the country observing and interviewing outstanding math teachers, and recently published a comprehensive book that invites teachers to reconsider how they think about and teach mathematics. In Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms, Zager strives to motivate teachers to replace the procedural and uninventive methods of ordinary math instruction with approaches that celebrate pure mathematics, with all its creativity, intuition and risk-taking.
And what is it true mathematicians do that the teachers should try to emulate? Mathematicians take risks, make mistakes, demand precision, rise to challenges, ask questions, connect ideas, use intuition, reason and prove—habits of mind that can be taught and learned in math classes. Zager introduces us to several exemplary teachers who find a way to do that, offering readers practical techniques to build the kind of classroom that embraces true mathematics. Zager’s book is divided into 13 chapters, each of which explores a different characteristic of a mathematical mind, and then follows up with stories of teachers who work to instill these qualities in their students.
“These teachers aren’t superheroes who were just born this way,” Zager cautions. Rather, they are mere mortals, all working with different populations of kids, who have honed their practice over the years through professional development, coaching and teacher inquiry. What unites them is a common desire to be more effective at their work.