What One Middle School Math Teacher Learned at NCTM 2019

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Editor's note: The author of this post, Joe Barry, traveled to NCTM 2019 as HMH’s Numeracy Counts ambassador.

I’ve completed 28 years in public education and have taught math for 15 years, including sixth-grade math for 10 years. In my middle school, I am one of three math teachers and the only one in sixth-grade math. Back in April, I realized how “sleepy” I had become professionally. Did I follow good practice? Usually. Did I try new strategies? Sort of. Did I look at the data? Maybe I would have . . . if I had collected any data.

Consequently, I emerged from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) annual conference with a more positive and wiser view of my teaching role. From what I saw, the sessions fell into three categories: the cerebral, the practical, and the experimental.

The cerebral workshops would really dig deep into math issues and explore data and meta-analysis. These covered big topics and featured revered speakers. But I’ll admit, I avoided these types of sessions.

Then, the practical sessions offered content that was finely sliced by grade levels, math objectives, and pedagogical technique. But I’m not really in the market for those things. Like many of my fellow teachers, I already have thousands of lesson plans and handouts accumulated from my decades of teaching. My problem is that I only have 160 good teaching days to implement them!

So, the workshops I benefited from the most tended to be the experimental—meaning the speakers tried a fresh approach to a long-established math issue or problem. I enjoyed hearing from a group that brought college professors of pre-service math teachers into a school to help a low-achieving group of students. The university staff worked with the classroom teacher to help the middle schoolers develop a deep understanding of fractions. These students rocked the fraction portion of their next round of mandated testing. Later, the professors brought some undergraduate, pre-service teachers into the middle school. Then the middle school students turned the tables and helped the undergrads figure out the “real meaning of fractions.” This proved to be eye-opening for all involved. Like many fresh, cool approaches, this model was unsustainable, hard to replicate, and impossible to scale up, but I didn’t care. I was moved by the testimonials from the middle school students who had some genuine success in a class that had been an ordeal most of their academic careers.

But what was most refreshing for me about NCTM was meeting teachers—from California, New York, Chicago, Florida, North Carolina—and not just teachers: various levels of coaches, associate professors, and consultants too. I had more engaging dialogues about math with these people than I have had in several years.

NCTM was a great time to connect with other math teachers. And it was a great time to wake up.

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


Joe was eligible to win HMH's Numeracy Counts sweepstakes by downloading the free Music Labs, which offer lessons for Grades K–12 on topics such as elapsed time, data collection and analysis, ratios and proportional relationships, and more. Plus, every lesson includes a link to a curated Spotify playlist to help the topics come to life.

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