Feature Article from 2021 AMTE Early Career Award Recipient

Lynsey Gibbons, Univ. of Delaware

Developing Partnerships

Receiving the 2021 Early Career Award from the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators afforded me an opportunity to reach out and thank some of the people who have supported me in my early career, including my family, advisors and mentors, colleagues and friends—all of whom have provided support essential to my growth and development. As I thanked various people through email or phone conversations, I reflected on the journey that has brought me to this point in my career. A critical aspect of my work, one that brings me much joy and fulfillment, is the partnerships I have developed with school district leaders, principals, mathematics coaches, teachers, and the children they serve. 

The privilege of situating my work and research in schools has brought me not only great delight but also continuous opportunities to learn and develop as an educator and researcher. Interacting with children allows me to learn more deeply about their mathematical thinking and the ways they communicate their mathematical ideas. Thinking alongside teachers in their classrooms allows me to work with teachers to collectively hypothesize about how a particular idea might be taken up by students, experiment with different instructional practices or activities, and then reflect together to make in-the-moment changes as instruction plays out. I learn so much from teachers’ innovations and willingness to take risks with their practices, as well as their critical examinations of whether the classroom community they are co-creating allows all of the children to be heard and seen. Interacting with principals helps me understand the deeply relational work of educational leaders and how they strive to provide every child a high-quality education that recognizes and respects children’s dignity and humanity.

It’s been incredibly inspiring to watch teachers and school leaders in turnaround contexts – schools serving racially and linguistically diverse low-income communities that have been labeled as “failing” – and witness their daily work to counter deficit narratives of students and teachers, seeking out ways to empower students, and organizing learning environments to tackle inequitable school structures and instructional practices. I’ve observed the work of students and teachers in a K-8 school in East Boston, home to the highest percentage of foreign-born citizens in any Boston neighborhood, who rallied around their families during a student-organized Immigrant Pride Week that culminated in a student-led march designed to inform, advocate, and empower themselves and their families. And in the midst of the pandemic, I have seen the extraordinary efforts teachers have made and continue to make to champion their students and understand the vast challenges so many were encountering at home.

In what follows, I reflect on the work I have engaged in during my early career to forge partnerships with educators in schools that allow us to learn alongside each other and further develop our understanding of teaching mathematics to children.

Getting to Know Local Educators

During my first year as an assistant professor, I found myself in a city where I knew no one. But I did know that this city, Boston, possessed a rich history related to elementary mathematics.  Numerous initiatives had been undertaken by mathematics educators at many institutions in the area. An important professional learning curriculum, Developing Mathematical Ideas, was created by mathematics educators at Education Development Center (EDC), SummerMath for Teachers at Mt. Holyoke College, and TERC, the materials of which had benefited many elementary teachers in the Boston area. Many curricular materials for children had also been developed by people at these same institutions and piloted in many classrooms across the area.  Colleagues of mine at BU had worked closely with a local school district and engaged in research alongside teachers to consider how classroom discussions in mathematics support students’ learning and engagement in mathematical practices. Familiar as I was with all these initiatives, I now wanted to understand how I might learn alongside these incredible teachers. Because I believe so deeply in our shared mission, I was able to break out of my bubble as a newcomer and cultivate a strong network in a relatively short time. 

Reflecting on how I connected when I arrived in Boston and thinking forward to my transition to Delaware, I’ve created a list of a few ways one might go about starting to develop relationships with local educators in hopes of establishing long-term, mutually beneficial collaborations.

  1. Reach out to district mathematics specialists. Meet to share a meal with the intent to listen and learn about the work of district mathematics specialists, the initiatives that excite them, and challenges they and mathematics teachers face in their district.
  2. Join local professional organizations. Join local professional organizations for mathematics teachers, mathematics specialists, or coaches in order to meet people and learn about the local context. Attend meetings and chime in on questions sent out over listserves.
  3. Reach out to colleagues who engage in partnership work. Chances are that some of your new colleagues have already established relationships with leaders and teachers in the area. Ask whether they would be willing to help you understand how the school districts are organized, share historical context of education in the area, and offer introductions.
  4. Participate and speak up at local conferences. A great way to get to know local teachers and school leaders is to speak about your work at a local conference. For example, having connected with leaders of MASSMate, a local AMTE affiliate in Massachusetts, I was invited to speak at their Dine and Discuss event. Currently, I am preparing a Research into Practice Series presentation with the Delaware Math Coalition. Follow up with people you have met to continue discussions or serve as a thought partner.
  5. Take it to social media. Connect with local educators via Twitter and other forms of social media. A picture I tweeted of the Fibonacci sequence depicted at a North End Boston park, using #MTBoS, caught the eye of a local math coach active on Twitter. Her comment opened up a multi-year partnership in which she invited me to bring the novice teachers I was helping support into her school so they could learn to enact Number Talks with children.
  6. Offer support. As relationships develop, listen for opportunities to offer support. Once you have conveyed your interest, a principal may ask you to engage in professional development with teachers around leading classroom discussions or other topics.  
  7. Apply for small, local grants. Many local non-profit organizations and foundations are interested in supporting small projects for teachers and school leaders in the area. The district leaders and I received funding to pay for substitute teachers to engage in the Math Labs professional learning design[1] for 4th-8th grade teachers at two schools.

I work alongside mathematics coaches and principals, thinking about how to organize their work and school structures to support teachers’ learning. Once I had gotten to know some coaches and principals in the Boston area, I was invited into their schools. I asked whether I might walk around classrooms while teachers were teaching mathematics so I could begin to get to know teachers and students. Coaches and principals would often join me, introduce me to teachers, and help me understand the classroom culture they envisioned for the young people in their school. I often asked if I could eat lunch with teachers so I could begin getting to know them and they me. I enjoyed learning about their families, pets, whether they were from the area or had moved from elsewhere, and the books or TV series they were currently enjoying. I shared about my own hobbies, the latest thing I had tried to bake, and perhaps the funny thing my 3-year-old had said on the way to preschool that morning. Connecting over a recipe, book, or favorite vacation spot allowed teachers and me to begin to forge social ties that supported future interactions, and also support our later conversations about what is difficult about teaching. We mutually benefited from a relationship that allowed us to be vulnerable with one another and explore teaching and learning mathematics by taking risks and making mistakes.

Partnerships with an Eye toward Research

I find myself in transition again as I start as a faculty member at the University of Delaware. I am in a place similar to that in which I found myself 6 years ago, coming from the outside and not knowing local educators. However, in many ways, arriving in Delaware feels different than arriving in Boston did. The context is quite different, many of my new colleagues have spent years forging relationships with local districts, and I bring with me all I have learned about partnerships from my work in the Boston area. It is time, again, for me to navigate the terrain of finding meaningful partnerships in which we can collaborate to produce new knowledge, build capacity, and inform action in schools. I make this transition amid a global pandemic and after teachers and school leaders have worked hard to engage in schooling that keeps their young people and communities safe. As they face the 2021-22 school year, many educators are thinking about providing spaces for healing from the suffering so many have experienced, as well as how to disrupt overlapping systems of racial oppression. I am asking myself, how can I connect with school leaders and teachers to think about how we can reinvent school to better serve children and their families, as well as the adults in schools – both now and in the future?  How can we reimagine schools as places where children and adults experience strong relationships with one another, enjoy a sense of belonging, and feel heard and seen each day, and where they explore ideas that are meaningful to them?  As I look to the future, I am excited to engage in new partnerships and new learning, where collectively we tackle new problems together.

[1] I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside Elham Kazemi at the University of Washington. While working as a postdoctoral fellow, I learned a great deal from Elham about how to establish and maintain school partnerships.