By Shellee Wong
Odessa High School
Appoquinimink School District
Delaware Council of Teachers of Mathematics (DCTM) leaders presented me with an exciting opportunity to be the guest speaker for the State Math League Invitational Banquet and Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, March 29th, at the Modern Maturity Center in Dover where I had the honor and privilege to talk about the work we have been doing in the pilot program of Building a Stronger and More Inclusive Pathway to Mathematics Education (BSMIPME). This project, funded by a SEED grant from the Delaware Foundation for Science and Mathematics Education, started with preliminary meetings in June of 2022 as a team of passionate teacher leaders from around the state engaged in conversations about the qualities we desire in mathematics teacher candidates and our plans to recruit students possessing these characteristics within our respective schools. We had a few students already involved in the project and when the opportunity opened up to potentially get more students involved—particularly students who like to think about math beyond the work they have for their current classes, I was thrilled!
In a room filled with our leading Math League regional champions from around the state, it was the perfect opportunity to pitch to them, and their families and coaches, that they rank as ideal candidates who can help preserve the future of teaching as a profession in this crucial moment where we are experiencing a teacher shortage nationwide. I started by asking the room to imagine what it would look like if there were no math teachers— a long pause followed. Each student was there because somewhere along their math journey, a caring math teacher encouraged them, coached them, and helped them to get to the room they were sitting in that evening. I then asked the attendees to think about their favorite math teacher, and whether it was the math in that particular teacher’s class that stands out in their memory. Some students nodded their heads, but most seemed puzzled. “I would venture to say that if it was the math, it’s that the math made sense in that class and the teacher helped you to understand it better, helped you to build your confidence in your ability to do math. And if it wasn’t about the math, I’d bet that it was because that teacher make you feel seen, heard, and above all… valued.” The room began to light up with smiles; some students even turned to their coaches and looked at them with admiration.
From the chuckles in the room, I gathered that we came to a collective understanding that math teacher candidates are people who not only love math, but love it enough to give up time outside of school to do math for fun, and like one of our students in the BSMIPME student cohort, Abby Szeto, said, “who get enjoyment out of seeing other people thrive!” As I stared out into the room, a room saturated with potential math teachers, I challenged them to think about if they had ever been asked to consider mathematics education as a potential major of study. Furrowed eyebrows greeted my inquiry. Some parents smiled at their children sheepishly. I shared that they were not alone if they had never been asked because we learned from an interview with Wyatt Ogbin, another one of our BSMIPME students, that no one had ever asked him about being a math teacher so it was never on his radar. As a daughter of Chinese immigrants, I understood the tension in the room and tried breaking it with, “And maybe the only options you’ve ever been presented with were becoming a doctor or a lawyer.” Laughter ensued. Medicine and law are fields focused on helping people, but so is teaching. What then, makes those fields more desirable than education?
In an attempt to make the case that personal happiness should be a key factor in choosing a future career path, I asked the students in the room to imagine waking up each day and getting paid to engage in math with brilliant young minds like their own. “Imagine being paid to do what you already love doing. That’s what teaching feels like to me! It truly is the dream job.” While doctors and lawyers get well-compensated financially, what parents often do not highlight to their children is the number of years of schooling it requires to make it in those fields and the amount of student loan debt that they would accrue—debt that takes years to pay off, even with cushiony salaries. Teachers can secure a full-time position after completing a 4-year degree and are usually financially supported to continue their education and pursue additional degrees by their employing district. Being cognizant that salary is a deciding factor for many families as they coach their children into choosing majors for college, I shared that our BSMIPME group met with stakeholders at the January Delaware Mathematics Coalition meeting where we learned about scholarship opportunities the colleges and universities are offering to students who pursue math education and the discussions at Delaware Department of Education regarding salary increases for teachers.
Lastly, I ended with an invitation to expand our existing student cohort, an idea that the Odessa High School BSMIPME students suggested, to build a strong network of high-school-age math enthusiasts who might be interested in studying mathematics education and would be willing to meet in the off-season of Math League. Additionally, I asked the coaches in the room to consider emailing me with the names of students they thought would be a great addition to the project who might not have had the opportunity to earn a spot at the invitational that night. Through our interviews with the current BSMIPME student cohort, we have learned that a big draw of becoming a mathematics teacher is the overwhelming amount of love and support they feel when they spend the day with us at the Leadership Coaching Lab sessions. So sure, doing math to win medals and trophies can be exciting, but so is meeting new people who share the same passions as you and spreading the joy of doing mathematics together with a group of math nerds who have become your second family. Several students reached out after the awards ceremony saying they wish they had known about the project earlier and that they would love to meet the current students in our project to hear more about their views on mathematics education as a result of participating in our sessions this year.
As teachers, we can all pinpoint the exact moment we knew we wanted to become a teacher or at least, identify the teacher that inspired us to go into teaching. If we can recreate that moment for the students we currently serve, or if we can be the teacher that inspires these beautiful young minds to join us in this field, then we are collectively working towards a brighter future of mathematics education. Let us be brave enough to believe that we can solve this teacher shortage problem; let us be kind enough to empower and advocate for the students who will join us in this effort; let us be bold enough to champion changes that will save this noble profession; and let us be innovative enough to imagine a world where being a mathematics teacher is not someone’s back up option, but what every child aspires to become!
Shellee Wong teaches at Odessa High School in the Appoquinimink School District. She is a participant of the Delaware Math Coalition’s Leadership Coaching Lab community, annual Math Camp, Building a Stronger & More Inclusive Pathway Pilot Project, and serves on the Dismantling Inequities in Mathematics Education (DIME) virtual series for administrators planning team. Shellee is also Director of Odessa High School’s Culture Club, a Math League Coach, and is an active member of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics organizations.