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Professional Learning

How One Middle School Math Teacher Connected With ESL Students

5 Min Read
Hero M180Hero Joel Leventhal Post

My first year of teaching after college was a breeze. I got a job teaching middle school science at the school in Tampa where I had my final internship. Was it a great year because the batch of students I had were so well-behaved? Was it because I had so much support from veteran teachers in classrooms nearby? A good administration? Whatever it was, I knew I had plenty of room to grow as a rookie teacher.

Then, years two and three did not go so well. I became sad, upset, anxious, and frustrated with student behavior and academic achievement. The close relationships I had built with colleagues would not be enough to keep me content teaching at this school. Something wasn’t working, and I needed a change.

Over the summer, I scrambled to look for a new teaching position. A call came in for an opening to teach MATH 180 in a school across town in a predominantly Cuban and Puerto Rican neighborhood. This would be the first year the program was introduced at every middle school in the district. So, in addition to being the new guy at school and teaching a subject I had never taught, I was now also charged with implementing a brand new math intervention program. Anxiety sunk in. All my students’ data would be on display for the world to see! What if my students failed to meet the rigorous district expectations? I felt a lot of pressure to perform.

I quickly adopted our school motto, “Everybody, Every Day, No Excuses.” My first period, homeroom, consisted of 25 students—18 of who spoke only Spanish. I had one other MATH 180 class similar to the first period group and two other classes with mostly English speakers. I also had the help of an ESOL translator—but only when she was not being called to translate parent phone calls. I hadn’t spoken Spanish since high school, and I knew the ESOL class I took in college wasn’t going to help me with this. How was I going to teach intensive math to these students?

But I quickly found out how special this group of students truly was. My students helped me learn Spanish as I helped them learn basic math. It was symbiotic. Once I learned how to count to 100 in Spanish (and then 1,000), math terms and phrases started to come easily to me. And I believed in the power of maintaining a growth mindset, so the activities during the first two weeks helped with building a classroom community and a culture for learning that were paramount for setting expectations for the school year.

As the year progressed, I started to love introducing new strategies and approaches to multiply and divide. I learned the importance of conceptual understanding versus rote memorization of algorithmic procedure. The lessons were structured with a great deal of research-based thought and organization, and the routines embedded in lessons to elicit discourse were working. Students were sharing their thinking and reasoning through mathematical conversations with appropriate vocabulary. They were excelling in my classroom and I had data to prove it!

Hero M180 Joel 1

I was fortunate to receive a wealth of encouragement and assistance from my community, including a math coach, Anita Roberts. Anita provided an incalculable amount of support and was so eloquent in the way she offered constructive feedback. I knew Anita had my back. She never told me how to do something but rather enabled me to reflect on my practice in a way I felt would best support my students. She would visit my classroom once a week and help me set a goal to work toward for increasing student achievement. By midyear, she had me believing that I was doing exactly what I needed to do for my students to be successful. From the way my room was set up to the way I was implementing lessons, I had full confidence in my abilities to teach math to middle schoolers.

After taking the midyear Math Inventory, my students showed tremendous growth and Anita nominated me for the MATH 180 Educator Award. As a teacher, it felt amazing to be appreciated for my efforts, and then when I found out I was a finalist, the feeling was pretty indescribable. One morning late in the school year, my principal announced over the intercom that I had been named the MATH 180 Educator winner. I could not believe it. I will be forever grateful that I was able to share that moment with the same homeroom full of Spanish-speaking students whom I had no idea how to effectively communicate with eight months earlier. The best part about winning was the appreciation my students developed for math and how their abilities and confidence improved. I worked my tail off, and I did it so I could help open doors that my students never considered opening.

A few years later, I become a consultant for Math Solutions and now I get to support teachers as they work to increase student achievement. By taking the time to nominate me for this award, Anita Roberts changed my life. If you know a teacher who could benefit from the 180 Awards, I hope you find a moment to nominate them. I know from experience how much he or she will appreciate it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


MATH 180 is a blended learning program designed to address the needs of struggling students and their teachers, equally. Hear from a MATH 180 student on Facebook.

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