Feature Article from 2017 AMTE Early Career Award Winner

Jennifer Tobias, Illinois State University

Reflecting on Being a Mathematics Teacher Educator: What I Have Learned

Throughout my time as a mathematics teacher educator, I constantly ask colleagues for advice on everything from ideas for how to teach a topic, to research, to balancing responsibilities. Likewise, I am also asked for advice from veterans as well as those new to the field. Given this opportunity and time to reflect on my career, I wanted to share what I have learned from my own experiences as well as from others.

Set Goals

The biggest thing I have learned is to set goals. For me these have included everything from working towards improving my teaching in a course, to getting an article published, to getting tenure and promotion. However, the goals we set do not need to be large goals, though large goals will need to be set from time to time. It is more realistic to set smaller goals which can lead you to larger goals. Not surprisingly, I am more productive when the goals I set are more realistic. I find myself often being more ambitious with the goals I set than what I can reasonably accomplish within a given amount of time. Though there are times when I have needed to put my goals on hold, I always have them in the back of my mind and continually work to achieve them.

Be Selective About Which Opportunities You Pursue

Opportunities will always be available. These will include things that people present to you as well as those you seek out yourself. I learned early on that you do not need to be quick to pursue every opportunity that comes your way. While a doctoral student I worked with a professor that would always say you never want to do anything unless you can get at least three positive outcomes from it. These could include a presentation and two publications, two presentations and a publication, a presentation, a publication, and a new research collaboration, etc. If you will not get three things from an opportunity, then it is not worth taking on. To this day, I live by this rule and have turned down opportunities I know from which I will not get at least three things.

Opportunities that you seek out yourself can include anything from a new research project to a writing collaboration. Early in my career I decided to use conference presentations as an opportunity to write more articles. Today, I continue this practice and have had several publications result from what started as conference presentations.

One of the opportunities I pursued was the Service, Teaching, and Research (STaR) program, which is now sponsored by AMTE. I was fortunate and honored to be selected to be in the very first cohort of STaR back in 2010. I cannot speak highly enough of the program and thank the many people involved, especially Bob and Barbara Reys, for developing a program that brings early career mathematics teacher educators together for an institute focused on service, teaching, and research. The STaR program was an invaluable experience and I developed relationships with people, both personally and professionally, that still exist today.

Opportunities will come and go, and in the beginning, it is hard to not pursue everything that comes your way. We often feel like we need to do it all to be productive and that is not the case. Turning down opportunities should not feel like you are missing out. Rather think about the ones you do pursue as helping you focus on what is important to you and leading you towards the type of mathematics teacher educator you hope to become in the future.

Collaborate with Others

Valuing collaborations started from the mentorship given to me by my doctoral advisor, Juli Dixon, while I attended the University of Central Florida. George Roy, Farshid Safi, and I were guided by Juli to collaborate on a study that resulted in all three of our dissertations. We worked together during research team meetings, analyzed data with one another, and gave feedback to each other on drafts of our work. We continued collaborating after graduation and published articles that combined the results from all three of our dissertations (Roy, Tobias, Safi, & Dixon, 2014; Tobias, Roy, & Safi, 2015). Collaborating on my first major research project with other people taught me to view things from different perspectives and to be open to perspectives I may not have thought about otherwise.

Throughout my career, I have collaborated with others, often as a result of my attending conferences. The first of these came from a PME-NA working group focused on elementary preservice teacher content knowledge. Led by Christine Browning, Eva Thanheiser, and many others, the group aimed to develop a literature review of the research on preservice teachers’ content knowledge. I worked with Jane-Jane Lo and Dana Olanoff to synthesize the research on preservice teachers’ understanding of fractions, which then became a chapter (Olanoff, Lo, & Tobias, 2014) in the August 2014 special issue of The Mathematics Enthusiast.

Another collaboration, that came from a PME-NA working group, focused on elementary preservice teacher education. The purpose was to create a book for people who teach courses for preservice teachers who may not have a background in education themselves. The larger working group broke into smaller groups. The group I joined focused on task design, which lead to the creation of the Task Masters. Comprised of myself, Ziv Feldman, Amy Hillen, Dana Olanoff, Eva Thanheiser, and Rachael Welder, we developed a research study focused on designing tasks for preservice teacher education content courses (Tobias, Olanoff, Hillen, Welder, Feldman, & Thanheiser, 2014). And yes, we are the ones that wear the matching t-shirts during presentations. Our book chapter (Feldman, Thanheiser, Welder, Tobias, Hillen, & Olanoff, 2016) was recently published and came after several years of collaborating on multiple iterations of a study created to develop tasks for preservice teachers. We continue to collaborate and are in the process of designing a new research study that expands on what we learned from our first study.

Collaborating with collegues and graduate students at my own institution has also provided me with an avenue to expand my research. Most of the work I have done has focused on elementary preservice teachers’ understanding and development of fractions. Though this research continues, collaborating with others at my institution has given me the opportunity to also research measurement (Wickstrom, Baek, Barrett, Cullen, & Tobias, 2012), integers (Wessman-Enzinger & Tobias, 2015), algebra (Kirwan & Tobias, 2014), and expand my work with fractions (Baek, Wickstrom, Tobias, Miller, Safak, Wessman-Enzinger, & Kirwan, 2017). This has given me a more well-rounded perspective on different types of research and with different populations.

Collaborations have played a huge role in my involvement with the mathematics education community and I have become a better teacher and researcher as a result. I focus my research around my own teaching and have found that developing collaborations, both inside and outside of my institution, gives me a perspective into others’ experiences which I can then adapt for my own practice.

Set Aside Time for Research

We all have required responsibilities that take precedence over and time away from our other responsibilities. Besides teaching and research, we also have service responsibilities that comes in the form of serving on committees, advising students, reviewing journal articles, etc. While these responsibilities help us learn more about our department, university, and the larger education community, they can limit our own productivity. I have found that setting aside time for research helps me to stay more focused on my current projects. Though I do not schedule a specific time every week for this, I purposefully try to keep an afternoon or whole day free once every few weeks to focus on scholarly productivity. 

Have a Backup Plan

Unfortunately, we are in a career where it is customary to be rejected. Whether the rejection comes from a conference or from a journal, I always have a backup plan. My backup plan for conferences is to read the reviewers’ comments, revise the proposal, and resubmit that proposal to that same conference for the next year. I have done this with proposals for AMTE, NCTM, and PME-NA and in every case, was accepted to the conference the second time around. 

When writing articles to submit to journals, I always have a list of at least 2-3 journals for which I feel the article could be appropriate. Though I may initially write an article for a specific journal, I always think about what to do with the article if it is rejected. If rejected, I revise and reformat the paper to make it appropriate for the next journal.

You never want to give up on an article or presentation. I used to think that if I got a “reject” or a “revise and resubmit” that this meant that I was rejected. Once I started revising articles, even those that were rejected the first time, I had more success getting presentations or publications accepted. Many of my presentations and publications would have never made it on to my resume had I given up on them after the first try.

Take Breaks

I have learned that taking breaks from my responsibilities helps me to be more productive. Finding a hobby, taking a trip, or just not thinking about a project for a few days keeps me focused and more motivated to continue working on what I was taking a break from. My main hobby is dancing with the Sugar Creek Cloggers, which is a local clogging group in my community. I have been dancing with them since starting at Illinois State University and found them before I applied for the position at ISU. I knew that I wanted to continue dancing and do an activity that was not related to my work. Dancing is a great stress reliever and I find that whenever I do get anxious about deadlines, I can just “tap it out” with my feet. Finding something that is completely different from what I do has helped me to be more productive when I do get back to work.

Final Thoughts

Being a mathematics teacher educator is a balancing act. You need to balance teaching, research, and service with each other and your own personal life. What works for someone else may not necessarily work for you and vice versa. Keeping an open mind is key as things can change in an instant. Throughout my 8 years in the field, I have learned that success comes from being persistent, not being discouraged, and always striving to do your best.


Baek, J. M., Wickstrom, M., Tobias, J. M., Miller, A. L., Safak, E., Wessman-Enzinger, N., & Kirwan, J. V. (2017). Preservice teachers' pictorial strategies for a multistep multiplicative fraction problem. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 45(c), 1 – 14. (Published online November 2016: DOI: 10.1016/j.jmathb.2016.10.005)

Feldman, Z., Thanheiser, E., Welder, R., Tobias, J.M., Hillen, A.F., & Olanoff, D. (2016). When is a mathematical task a good task? In L. C. Hart, Oesterle, S., Auslander, S.S., & Kajander, A. (Eds.), The mathematics education of elementary teachers: Issues and strategies for content courses (pp. 9-24). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Kirwan, J. V., Tobias, J. M. (2014). Multiple representations and connections with Sierpinski. Mathematics Teacher, 107(9), 666-671. 

Olanoff, D., Lo, J.-J., Tobias, J. M. (2014). Mathematical content knowledge for teaching elementary mathematics: A focus on fractions. The Mathematics Enthusiast, 11(2), 267-310.   

Roy, G. J., Tobias, J. M., Safi, F., Dixon, J. K., (Winter 2014). Sustaining social and sociomathematical norms with prospective elementary teachers in a mathematics content course. Investigations in Mathematics Learning, 7(2), 33 – 64. 

Tobias, J.M., Olanoff, D., Hillen, A.F., Welder, R.M., Feldman, Z., Thanheiser, E. (2014). Research-based modifications of elementary school tasks for use in teacher preparation. In K. Karp (Ed.), Annual perspectives in mathematics education: Using research to improve instruction (pp. 181-192). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Tobias, J. M., Roy, G. J., Safi, F. (January 20, 2015). Prospective elementary teachers' conceptions of unitizing with whole numbers and fractions. International Journal for Mathematics Teaching and Learning. http://www.cimt.plymouth.ac.uk/journal/tobias.pdf

Wessman-Enzinger, N., & Tobias, J. M. (2015). Preservice teachers’ temperature stories for integer addition and subtraction. In Beswick, K., Muir, T., & Wells, J. (Eds.). Proceedings of 39th Psychology of Mathematics Education conference, Vol. 4, pp. 289-296. Hobart, Australia: PME.

Wickstrom, M.H., Baek, J., Barrett, J.E., Cullen, C.J., & Tobias, J.M. (2012). Teacher’s noticing of children’s understanding of linear measurement. In Van Zoest, L. R, Lo, J.-J., & Kratky, J. L. (Eds.). Proceedings of the 34th annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (pp. 488-494). Kalamazoo, MI: Western Michigan University.

*Thank you to Eva Thanheiser, George Roy, Ziv Feldman, and Dana Olanoff for their feedback on drafts of this article.