I teach math. It’s true. I never thought I would be a math teacher, but here I am, seven years in. You’d think seven years would give me confidence, belief in myself that I am a math teacher, but it doesn’t. We’ve spent so many years in education focused on being highly qualified, meaning holding a specific certification and having the “right” set of college coursework under our belts, that we fail to recognize the knowledge and skill that comes with practice and actual experience. This was my problem. So, when Jesse Gilliam from Washington STEM* contacted me to speak at the Washington STEM Summit last November, my first response was, “Are you sure I’m the right person for this event?”
He responded that the Summit focus was on equity in STEM and he believed, based on my teaching context, I was exactly the right person for this event. This was enough of a push for me to go for it, but just barely. After all, if I’m going to encourage my colleagues, students, family, and anyone else who might listen, to be fearless, I better practice what I preach, right?
I teach math, yes, but not math in the traditional sense. I teach the language for math to high school English language learners who already have the skills, just not the English. I wasn’t so sure that qualified me as an expert, but it did make me think. Why didn’t I see myself as a math teacher? More importantly, why didn’t I see my class, in which we cover content from place value to Cartesian graphs, foundational elements of geometry and algebra to percentages and fractions, as a legitimate math class?
I spent the time between the request to speak and the actual day of the panel diving deeply into the rabbit hole of what equity in STEM means and how it all relates to my own practice in the Newcomer Center. All the while, trying to convince myself that I really do have something to share about this important topic. After weeks of fretting, I finally thought about the topic in terms which made sense to me. I thought about my students. How do my students fit within STEM?
I started with the students in my class, by looking at their interests, their academic strengths and weaknesses, and their goals for the future. Roughly 90% of my kids seek post-secondary education and careers in STEM fields, with 50% wanting careers in medicine. This led me to think about former students, those who went on to college and those who entered the job market or sought technical degrees. It was this train of thought that put me on my path – our view of STEM is quite narrow, traditional – STEM is simply that, science, technology, engineering, and math, and teaching STEM subjects is pretty straightforward. We fail to look at STEM from all angles, and provide all students the inroads they need to access STEM.
The long and short of it is, I am a math teacher. I simply don’t teach math in the traditional sense. I provide my students the approach and knowledge they need to become proficient. My students know math, but if we put them in a regular math class without the proper foundational language skills, they will not succeed. What I teach and how I teach them prepares them for what comes next. Because I have the latitude to meet my students where they are and instruct them in a manner and at a level that is appropriate, they are better equipped to achieve their goals. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we created space for alternative means through which to teach and learn STEM subjects? Imagine, all students would be STEM students, it might simply look different for each of them.
Watch my comments and the equity panel at the Washington STEM Summit here (my comments begin about 20 mins. into the video). Equity in STEM is a matter of access. How do you view STEM and your place in it?
* Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math