Feature Article from 2015 AMTE Early Career Award Winner

Eva Thanheiser, Portland State University

Pondering Identities: A Story On Being a Mathematics Educator and a Mother of Three

“Mom it is nice to see that you are happy with your job”
– Hannah, age 13 at the time

Why share this story?

Why do we share stories? A quick Google search leads to “We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others” (Rose, 2011) and “It is a way of finding common ground and sharing experiences. It can feel very positive when someone has had a similar experience and we feel that they understand where we are coming from” (Making Waves, 2015). These quotes resonate with my own experience. In this short article I share my story of negotiating being a mathematics teacher educator as well as a parent. I note here that being a parent is one of several ‘other’ identities a mathematics teacher educator can hold but not the only one.

Sharing stories is an important part of being part of a community. Learning about others within the community helps us contextualize ourselves. Thus, one goal of sharing my story is to share my experience with others in the field. I have recently had several conversations with other members of the mathematics teacher education community who are either contemplating staring a family or have young children. A reoccurring theme in these conversations is that people appreciate seeing other members of the community being able to negotiate being part of both their professional and their parenting communities. As one of our graduate students put it “My two top values [are]:  family and pursuit of knowledge. I want them both. Sometimes, that seems really unattainable. … I am fascinated by people who can achieve this balance and quite genuinely scared that I never will.” So it is her, and others, who I am sharing my story with.

While everyone needs to find their own identities within in their various communities and there is no “right way” to do things, hearing stories can help people understand themselves and others better. I like to hear stories others tell to understand them and myself better. In my first years as a mathematics teacher educator I very much appreciated hearing from more established members of the community about all kinds of things (and I still do!). For example, it was helpful to hear about how others had gotten proposals rejected, and articles returned as reject and/or revise and resubmit. Hearing that these things happen to many people helps us all cope better.

Although my story involves negotiating between parenting and teacher education, broadly my story involves negotiating between my personal and professional life. I begin with the personal and then move to the professional and close with a balance between the two.

The beginning of my story: Having children in graduate school

I am, first and foremost, the mother of three daughters: Hannah & Lilly, age 15, and Kaya, age 7. I admire my daughters as they seem to know who they are (which I did not at their age) and they know how to be kind members of their communities.

I had always known that I wanted daughters and being a mother has always been part of my image of myself as a grown up. Thus, for me, the question was always WHEN and never WHETHER to have children.

A short time into my graduate program at SDSU/UCSD I had my twin daughters and negotiated life as a graduate student and as a mother. I hit some stumbling blocks, but with the patient guidance of fellow PhD students with families and my advisor/mentor Randy Philipp, I was able to find my place in the program. His support and flexibility were key in my ability to feel like this was a doable feat.

At my current institution, Portland State University, about half the graduate students have/had children during their graduate programs. Reflecting with the graduate students about what made it possible/comfortable for them to have children while in school, they shared that (a) their advisors supported their decisions to have children, (b) the program was flexible to allow for various levels of participation (i.e. working half time for a while is possible), (c) their spouses were supportive with either time and/or financial support, and (d) there was a community of parents among the graduate students as well as among the mathematics education faculty. They agreed that seeing lived examples of integrating children with work/career helped them to be able to make the decision to have children at that point. As one of our students put it “all [of the faculty with children] are actively involved in their children’s lives.” This is part of the reason for me sharing my story.

If asked now whether I think graduate school was a good time to have children, I would wholeheartedly affirm. It was a perfect time to have children because graduate school is so flexible. However, I have to also agree with our students that what made it possible was the support of advisors and fellow students.

Negotiating between the communities: A focus on the personal

Once the decision for a family is made everyone has to find their own balance. There is no general way of negotiating between the personal and the professional. However, hearing stories can help us figure out where we might fit. So I return to sharing my story. I was always looking for a good balance between work, family, and friends. When our daughters joined our family, they were all consuming, and that was okay. Slowly I added regular work/study back into the routine, part time at first, then full time (this is part of the flexibility I noted above).

I am happiest having a fulltime job and making sure to also have time for my family. Once I was in a tenure track position we decided to add a third daughter to our family who is keeping us busy still. Again, the department I worked at (in the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University) was generous in working with me to reduce my teaching load and accommodate my teaching schedule to something that worked for my family and me. I want to note here, that ideally, we would not need to have to rely on a system of generosity but would have established maternity leave in place. Barring that, however, I am grateful for the accommodations that were being made.

When asking my students (PhD students in Mathematics Education) about the benefits they saw to having children while in school responses ranged from “purely emotional” to “they give me great balance.” I agree with the latter. Being involved as a mathematics teacher educator and as a parent forces me to balance between the two. I cannot work all weekends! Having a family gives me the freedom to not feel guilty for not working during the dinner hours and/or during the weekends. We often go for weekend trips with the whole family and this gives me a healthy break from work. Other parents have expressed similar feelings; to quote my friend Heather Johnson’s comment while she reviewed this article draft for me “something I have thought about a lot is how grateful I am to have this 'forced' balance.” Randy Philipp, who also reviewed a draft of this article, commented: “I also think that your story resonated with me, as a parent whose life has now changed because my children are not at home [anymore]. I have experienced a different challenge, which is that the 'forced' break created by immediate needs of children is not part of my life.”

An added benefit is that inhabiting more than one world allows us to balance out lows and highs. For example, if I had a very stressful day at work, I can go home, pack up the family, and go do something fun with them. On the other hand, if I ever think that I have accomplished something (like winning this award), my teenage daughters are quick to remind me “Mom, you know NOTHING” … and the world is in balance again!

For me, I feel that my two main identities (being a mother and being a mathematics teacher educator) complement each other well. I am able to move between the two and they provide a balance to each other. I also like that my three daughters see their mother happy in her role as a full time working mother.

Negotiating between the communities: A focus on the professional

I have always had a love of working with people to understand ideas, especially in mathematics, thus when I found out that there is such as thing as a PhD in mathematics education that was the perfect match for me.

My identity as an elementary mathematics educator brings with it the opportunities of explicating that Elementary Mathematics is NOT elementary (or simple); it is not “just arithmetic.” Quite the opposite! Making sense of elementary mathematics concepts can be quite challenging. However, it is worthwhile to engage in sense making of those ideas as that not only leads to children, and prospective teachers  (PSTs), understanding the foundational ideas of mathematics, but it also helps them form a belief that mathematics is an interconnected set of concepts rather than some disjointed set of procedures. When working with my PSTs in their content courses, this is one of the hurdles we need to jump together. One intervention I designed to help my PSTs understand that there is more to mathematics than procedures is an individual interview with them at the beginning of the course. During this interview I ask them to explain what they thought to be “simple” mathematics, which it is not, such as explaining regrouping in the context of subtraction (Thanheiser, Philipp, Fasteen, Strand, & Mills, 2013). In this interview they realize (a) they know how to do the math but they do not know how to explain it, (b) there is a way to explain it, and (c) they themselves (as future teachers) should know how to explain it. As such, such an interview can be leveraged to jump-start the students into their course.

One way I integrate my identities as a mother and as a mathematics educator is to leverage my elementary mathematics teacher educator identity when I go into my daughters’ schools and teach math lessons in their classrooms and to leverage my knowledge about my children, other children and schools when I teach my university classes. Thus, in a way having children has supported my career as a mathematics teacher educator as it has allowed me frequent access to children’s mathematical thinking and elementary classrooms. I thank all my daughters’ teachers for inviting me into their classrooms. What a wonderful way to combine both of my identities. I also often invite children into my classroom or take my teachers into K-12 schools. One prime example of this integration is a family math night experience I developed for my preservice teachers to connect their university classroom to the K-12 classroom (Thanheiser, Philipp, & Fasteen, 2014).

Personal and Professional support systems

Before concluding this article I wanted to discuss my personal and professional support systems. When my daughters were little we belonged to a German playgroup in San Diego which consisted of a group of mothers with babies the same age who met once or twice a week (at the beach with coffee and cake) to talk about raising children. This community became my family (as most of us German mothers did not have family in the US) and my ‘escape’ from work. In this group I was a mom and not a graduate student. To this day we visit each other and our children have become close friends. I have since belonged to several other groups unrelated to my work (i.e., parent groups through schools and sports clubs), which always provide for balance.

Professionally I wanted to discuss my collaborations with other mathematics teacher educators. These colleagues/friends make the job enjoyable and provide a different kind of balance. I am a member of various communities of practice within the mathematics teacher education community and I want to note three in this article (a) being a member of a working group at PME-NA focusing on PSTs’ content knowledge, (b) participating in a women’s writing group, and (c) being a member of several other close collaborations. I draw a lot of strength from the relationships formed within these communities.

The PME-NA working group brought people with a common interest together which led to collaborative publications (i.e. Thanheiser, Browning, et al., 2014) as well as friendships. It afforded me mentorship by more established members of the community in my initial years. A thanks goes out to Tad Watanabe, Jane-Jane Lo, and Christine Browning among many others. The mentorship included both a focus on the professional, as well as a focus on the personal. My advice here would be to start such a group if you have a field of interest and there are no pre-existing communities to join. While this group initially had one core focus, many of us continued to collaborate over the years and have established close friendships.

Amy Ellis and Mandy Jansen formed a women’s writing group to collect a few of us (Beth Herbel-Eisenmann, Anna Conner, Heather Johnson, and myself) to meet for a week each summer to write together. In addition to the main initial goal of writing together, this group has become a community of practice. We turn to each other for advice, feedback, etc., both professionally and personally. (Case in point: Both Mandy and Heather read drafts of this article and provided feedback on it). And in addition to working together we also have fun together (which is important to establish community). There are many writing groups similar to ours out there. I strongly suggest that if you are not part of one, that you start one. All it takes is to send out a few emails and arrange for a meeting place. We take turns hosting (either at our houses, vacation rentals, hotels, etc.) and split the costs. While participating in these writing weeks is not funded it is well worth the cost.

Other collaborations also often lead to communities of practice that go beyond the initial goal. For example, most recently I am a member of a group focusing on task design and while we began designing and researching one task (Thanheiser et al., 2015), we are now focusing on a second task. In addition, since we are a community of practice of elementary mathematics teacher educators teaching content courses, we turn to each other for advice on teaching, etc. Mostly establishing communities keeps one grounded.

Closing thoughts

One of my goals over the next few years is to collect and establish a joint depository for shared stories. My first experience with such a story was a joint venture with Beth Herbel-Eisenmann and Amy Ellis. All three of us got asked to talk at NCTM about publishing our work in JRME. After the talk we decided to write up our experience so it would continue to be available and published it in JRME (Thanheiser, Ellis, & Herbel-Eisenmann, 2012). I am hoping that over the years we can create a collection of stories that will be available for those interested in learning more about other members of the community and their stories. I also welcome conversations, so please visit my website discussion at http://tinyurl.com/PonderingIdentities or email me at evat@pdx.edu if you would like to discuss this story or share yours.




  • Making Waves. (2015). Why do we tell stories?, from http://www.makingwaves.org/current-work/life-story/introduction/why-do-we-tell-stories/
  • Rose, F. (2011). The art of immersion: Why do we tell stories?, from http://www.wired.com/2011/03/why-do-we-tell-stories/
  • Thanheiser, E., Browning, C., Edson, A. J., Lo, J., Whitacre, I., Olanoff, D., & Morton, C. (2014). Mathematical content knowledge for teaching elementary mathematics: What do we know, what do we not know, and where do we go? The Mathematics Enthusiast, 8.
  • Thanheiser, E., Ellis, A. B., & Herbel-Eisenmann, B. (2012). From dissertation to publication in jrme. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 42(2), 144 - 158.
  • Thanheiser, E., Olanoff, D., Hillen, A., Feldman, Z., Tobias, J., & Welder, R. (2015). Beyond task implementation: Collecting and analyzing data to reflect on and modify tasks. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education.
  • Thanheiser, E., Philipp, R., & Fasteen, J. (2014). Motivating preservice elementary teachers to learn mathematics via an authentic task. Paper presented at the Psychology of Mathematics Education, Vancouver, Canada.
  • Thanheiser, E., Philipp, R., Fasteen, J., Strand, K., & Mills, B. (2013). Preservice-teacher interviews: A tool for motivating mathematics learning. Mathematics Teacher Educator, 1(2), 137 - 147.

*Many thanks to Amanda Jansen, Heather Johnson, Kate Melhuish, and Randy Philipp who read drafts, shared their thoughts, helped me explicate ideas, and encouraged me to submit this paper.