Understanding the “Why” Behind Math: An Interview with West Virginia Teacher Tina Davis

April 13, 2017

Photo of West Virginia teacher, Tina Davis.Tina Davis teaches elementary math in Cottageville, West Virginia, the same town where she was born and raised. In this profile, she talks with us about the special challenges of teaching in a rural community struggling with unemployment, poverty, and drug use—and how using Reasoning Mind Foundations has helped engage her students with mathematics. Read the interview below to learn more about Mrs. Davis’ teaching philosophy and the ways in which her campus goes above and beyond to create a safe, loving environment for all students.

Had you always wanted to be a teacher?

Definitely. In high school, I babysat and taught Sunday school, and teaching just seemed like the most logical thing in the world to do. I’ve always enjoyed being around little people—watching them make their discoveries and spending time with them. Becoming a teacher was just the most natural and easy decision in the world!

Growing up, did you have a favorite teacher? 

This is such a hard question because I had countless teachers that made such a positive impact in my life. I know how much they meant to me. I can only strive to be that same kind of teacher to my students.  I see it as a “pay it forward” opportunity in my life.

If I had to narrow it down to only one teacher, it would have to be Lori Mahan, who was one of my favorite elementary teachers. She was just wonderful in making sure she reached out to all students, particularly struggling learners. You could see her love of children and her desire to reach especially the students for whom learning didn’t come as easily. She was a very special teacher in my life, and because I’m teaching in the same town where I grew up, she’s gone from my teacher to my colleague and friend.

How would you describe your teaching style?

Probably the most important thing that I do when I teach is try to make sure the children know they are safe and that they are in a loving environment. I think when they have those two things, they then feel safe enough to learn. As a student, they have to be in a position—a mindset—to be able to take in information.  I really believe strongly that if you don’t feel love, that you’re not going to be able to open up or to take in new information effectively.

So I try to be silly and we try to have fun, because I think if you’re laughing, you build so many more connections. Especially with my struggling learners, who have challenging home lives, I keep in mind that school might be the best part of their day.

“Probably the most important thing that I do when I teach is try to make sure the children know they are safe and that they are in a loving environment.”

Tell us about the town and community you teach in, and the special challenges the children face in your community.

This is a very rural—very country—community. Typically, if a child graduates and goes on to college, they leave this area, because there’s not a lot of employment opportunities. And we see the poverty cycle continuing as we lose our college professionals to states that are more attractive. But hopefully more jobs will come in—we’re always hopeful for that.

My school in particular is over 90% impoverished. Every child at our school qualifies for free lunch and breakfast. We have the highest rate of children that are participating in the “snack pack” program, which means they don’t have enough food for the weekends, so local churches, local businesses, and generous individuals make wonderful donations to provide back-up food for them to take home.

I think many people don’t realize what’s going on in these children’s lives. They don’t realize that learning to subtract with borrowing or how to carry might not be the priority on their minds when they’re coming from difficult home environments. So the most important thing, as I said, is to start with an environment where the children know they are loved and safe, and we do our best to make a difference and make their lives good for the time they’re with us.

“I think many people don’t realize what’s going on in these children’s lives … we make provisions for them because we know that sometimes they didn’t spend last night at home, they spent last night in a car, so maybe they need clean clothes.”

What are some of those community challenges, specifically?

One trend is away from traditional families. Not even just single-parent families, but we have many grandparents raising children in our community. We have parents that are incarcerated. There’s a lot of drug use. Many unemployed parents. PBS recently filmed a special on our school and how poverty has taken its toll on our kids.

So we do our best to make sure our kids’ basic needs are met. Whether it’s a pencil or a book or new socks or even toothbrushes and toothpaste. We make provisions for them because we know that sometimes they didn’t spend last night at home, they spent last night in a car, so maybe they need clean clothes. And we have a support network, so that if they come in and need someone to talk to—a teacher or a counselor or a nurse—we’re always here for them and will spend as much extra time with them as needed.

PBS Newshour profiled Mrs. Davis’ campus in December 2016. Their report, which you can watch above, focuses on the impact of opioid addiction in rural West Virginia and how Cottageville Elementary is rallying to support their students.

You’ve been using Reasoning Mind Foundations for about three years now. When did you first hear about the program, and what was your initial impression?

Well, initially, another teacher had agreed to go to an information session and had to cancel at the last minute, so they needed another teacher to attend. All I knew was that it was something about math, and so I said “Sure, I’ll go, maybe they’ll show me something I like!” And I went and after exploring the interface a bit and learning about the curriculum, I remember thinking: my own kids would love this!

Right away, I loved the fact that the instruction was self-paced. I realized I could have my struggling learners exactly where they needed to be, and at the same time have my academically advanced learners where they wanted to be: always with somewhere further to reach. For example, right now in my class I have a little girl who is struggling and is really more at the first-grade level, and I have other students who are ready to finish the second-grade material and about to move on to the third-grade program. All their needs are being met individually, and best of all, they’re not being isolated or singled out. To them, they’re all doing the same program and they’re in this together. And because Reasoning Mind Foundations is self-paced, some of the kids are seeing concepts and material that their peers have already seen, so they get excited about talking to them about it.

Did you like math as a student?

I have learned to like math a whole lot more, and I have really developed a love for math. As a student, I was more or less indifferent to it, and perceived it mostly as drill-and-kill exercises based on inflexible rules. But simply through teaching it and observing the excitement my own children have for math (and how huge STEM-careers are becoming), I’ve developed a much greater appreciation. Because of my own lack of excitement about it as a student, I try to get my own students more excited, because if you’re excited about something, you don’t need someone to push you. You will push yourself and you will want to learn.

Why do you think some students are anxious about or bored by math?

Sometimes math is presented in a very strict way, as in: this is the correct way, and this is how you solve this particular problem or perform this particular operation. And I know when I was growing up, I had these types of mathematical “rules” developed, but I didn’t understand the “why” behind them. And as I recall, asking questions about that was almost considered impolite—but I didn’t mean to question the teaching method, but was just trying to understand why this or that rule was the method, what made it work that way? If you understand the concepts more deeply—the why—then you know you don’t always have to solve problems the same way because you understand the underlying logic. And that’s what I try to instill in my kids, a sense that there is logic behind math, it’s not a set of blanket rules. And as a teacher, I tell my students that I care less about how they get the answer, as long as they get to the right answer. We have to find the way of solving the problem that works for them. So I present as many strategies and ideas as possible and let them pick the road they want to drive on to come to the right answer.

“And that’s what I try to instill in my kids, a sense that there is logic behind math, it’s not a set of blanket rules.”

Understanding the “why” and encouraging multiple routes gets at a very important point about problem-solving, which goes beyond just math class.

That’s right. I always fear that a child will think that they have to solve a problem a particular way and just assume it works because I or some other teacher said it works. I don’t want them to take me at my word, I want them to figure out why it works. It’s such a more important concept. If you know why something works, then you can go deeper and you can learn the next step. You have to start with that deep foundation. I feel like my foundation as a student had so many holes, mostly because it was based on rules, not the real concept of why those rules worked.

How have your students reacted to using Reasoning Mind Foundations?

Our classroom with Reasoning Mind is truly an exciting, fun, inviting atmosphere. They love the program and find it really fun, and we enjoy competing for class and individual goals. A couple of years ago, we had the pleasure of having the Genie [Reasoning Mind’s animated mascot] visit our school and it was like someone famous appearing—the students asked for autographs and pictures and told the Genie how much they loved math.

Do you think the program has had an impact on math results for your students?

Yes, 100%. My group last year was a particularly challenging group behaviorally—and again, at that time, we were the most impoverished school in the county—but we met or exceeded the growth of every single county school.  When the director of elementary schools saw our test scores, she was so impressed that she found a way to bring the Reasoning Mind program back this year. And I don’t bring this up to brag on myself, I bring it up to brag on our kids and on the program. It’s amazing. It’s a wonderful program. It’s a wonderful tool.

“When the director of elementary schools saw our test scores, she was so impressed that she found a way to bring the Reasoning Mind program back this year.”

What are some aspects you particularly like about the program?

I love the way student metrics and announcements come up on my teacher interface. I take advantage of any chance I get to encourage a positive environment in the classroom, and the kids know throughout class that I’ll use Reasoning Mind’s reports to provide positive reinforcement. For example, I’m always looking for anyone below an 80% accuracy for the day, and I then pull those kids for small group interventions before assigning review lessons. Then I report back to everybody that a particular student improved—for example, if they went from a 60% accuracy up to an 80%—the other students will clap and be excited for the student.

What would you tell a teacher considering using Reasoning Mind?

Actually I’ve already done this—it’s why our school’s kindergarten teacher is now using Reasoning Mind’s Blueprint program this year!

I’d say first, that it’s fun. And anytime there’s an opportunity for children to have fun, they’re at least going to get that spark of “Oh, I’m a little curious about this—I’m willing to open up to learning and trying a different avenue.” With Reasoning Mind Foundations, even though it’s a curriculum program, it’s so engaging that you almost have to constantly remind students that it isn’t a game. But even if they do think of it as a game, they’re still taking it seriously and want to see their points increase and their accuracy improved because they’re working against themselves. I think competition can be healthy and the best way is if it’s internal and you’re trying to push yourself.

Also, I think Reasoning Mind Foundations is fantastic because of the self-paced nature. It allows you to meet the needs of all the varieties of learners you have in your classroom, whether it’s an academic struggler, a child who is less motivated, even a struggling reader can benefit from the audio component. It’s really an option where everyone succeeds and it’s a win-win.

Finally, it helps students become independent learners. As a teacher, you’ll have so much more time to work individually with students who are struggling, and even with students that are advancing and need that extra enrichment support. You have so much more one-on-one time with your kids.

Thank you, Mrs. Davis, for taking the time to be interviewed and most importantly, for the work you’re doing to make a difference in the lives of so many students!

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