Making Math Accessible…for Teachers

I am just back from the NCTM Annual Meeting and Exposition in sunny San Diego, and what a phenomenal experience it was! There was a lot of buzz around equity and making math accessible to all students. I would like to suggest that in order to make that happen, we have to start with making math accessible for teachers.

It is no secret that the way math is taught today is different. It’s different from the way that many of us were taught, and it’s different from the way that many of us are used to teaching. In some cases, it is a shift in thinking comparable to turning the Titanic to avoid the iceberg. Current standards emphasize communication, using and reasoning about multiple strategies, justification, and authentic math modeling. Memorization of procedures and speed, once the hallmark of strong mathematicians, are no longer the gold standard. In fact, thanks to research, we now know how detrimental an emphasis on speed in math can be.

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We are asking math educators to fundamentally change the way in which they teach. You know what? That’s pretty dang scary. I believe that how we handle that change has a lot to do with growth vs. fixed mindset. Teachers with a growth mindset, regardless of their years in the classroom, see themselves as a work in progress, and that helps them to overcome the fear of trying a new approach.  So how do we help all teachers shift their teaching practices in a way that we know benefits students? We make math feel friendly. We let them play. For my last session at NCTM, I had the opportunity to hear John Stevens speak on a curiously titled topic: Creating the Staff Lounge You’ve Always Wanted. John wrote a wonderful book called Table Talk Math, and I knew I’d leave with some good ideas. The thrust of the discussion was that teachers rarely get a chance to play with math, so he talked about ways to spark curiosity in the staff lounge. He presented us with the Would You Rather math problem shown below:

At first glance, it might seem obvious that 5 pencils that are 6 cm each is the better choice. I mean 30 is greater than 27, right? But the discussions we had were amazing and wide-ranging. What if you put a premium on erasers? What if you prefer to use longer pencils than shorter ones. What if you measure the eraser portion of the pencil and factor that into your reasoning? John’s suggestion was to post problems such as this in the staff lounge and let teachers engage in the types of mathematical discussions we hope for our students to engage in.

So who is ready to try it? I know I am! I’m so interested in how we help teachers become less fearful about teaching in a new way. I hope you will share your thoughts in the comments. What has worked for you? What suggestions do you have for managing such a huge change in thinking? Together we are better.

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  1. Hi,
    My school is going to be piloting a math program for the first time in about 10 years (the last program we used was Every Day Math, which I did not care for). I really respect your work and I was wondering if you have any suggestions for an up to date, researched based, quality math program we could look into.

    1. Thank you for the kind words! I actually have limited involvement, and therefore knowledge, about different textbook programs. I always refer folks to EdReports, an independent nonprofit, which does very thorough reviews of programs.

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