Feature Article from 2023 AMTE Early Career Award Recipient

Megan H. Wickstrom, Montana State University

Cultivating Community and Belonging in Mathematics Education

When I consider my own academic journey, I cannot help but reflect on the role of community and belonging. The word community can take on several different meanings. Community can act as a label and be defined as a group of people with a particular characteristic. Community can also be a feeling of fellowship with others while working toward a shared goal. Broadly, AMTE members are drawn together by the characteristic of being mathematics teacher educators, but more often, we are drawn together by a shared purpose of improving education and the lives of our students through more equitable and effective educational practices. In this definition of community, we come to know one another and recognize ourselves as parts of a bigger whole strengthened by collaboration, diversity, and support for one another.

Many of our notions of community in academia were threatened following the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, many of us were separated physically, experienced additional feelings of isolation and stress, and considered our sense of belonging in academia. As we look toward the future, cultivating community and connecting with one another is more important than ever. Reflections from Early Career Award winners are typically written with an eye toward supporting new faculty as they make their way in academia, but success does not lie squarely on new faculty members’ shoulders. From a community perspective, this is everyone’s responsibility. We should each be working to cultivate spaces in which new faculty members can belong and flourish. In this piece, I share with you realizations I have had about belonging and ways in which community members can show up for and support one another. I begin with reflections on cultivating a sense of purpose and then branch into how this can cultivate community.

Cultivating Purpose

We cannot begin to create a shared sense of purpose until we discover our individual purpose. In describing community, Kimmerer (2013) states,

The most important thing that each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction so that they can be shared with others. (p.134)

Each of us has a story and purpose that has led us to this space, and cultivating our purpose helps us find direction in our work. I was drawn to the field of mathematics education because I did not always feel a sense of belonging in the mathematics classroom. As early as second grade, I had teachers tell my family that I was not “good” at math. I freely admit that I am not good at memorizing facts and doing problems quickly. I like being able to figure things out for myself and try different approaches, and I am not always satisfied with being told how to solve a problem. Reflecting on my experiences as a teacher, I now understand I might not have been the most agreeable student. At home, I experienced mathematics in a hands-on way through building projects with my dad, cooking and quilting with my mom, and trying to beat my grandma in a card game called Spite and Malice. I did not know it at the time, but I was experiencing topics like geometry and measurement, probability, and modeling in action. Those experiences helped me to love mathematics, and I was able to find reason and purpose in it even when my school experiences did not always reflect these values.

When I became a teacher and researcher, I wanted students to experience mathematics in relevant and meaningful ways, connected to their lived experiences. Much of my work is situated in developing tasks and understanding teaching practices that leverage students’ experiences in relation to mathematics, give them opportunity for choice and creativity, and help develop their mathematical agency. I also seek to document students’ and teachers’ voices with the understanding that people experience mathematics in different ways and every voice presents opportunities for new perspectives. When I reflect on my story, it helps me to understand my purpose and the strengths I bring to this space. I share my story because I believe none of us is here by happenstance and we each have unique strengths to offer. I often reflect on my purpose when presented with a new opportunity or when facing a setback. When a new opportunity (teaching, research, service) arises, I consider how it connects to my purpose and if my strengths will be valued. When facing a setback, reflecting on my purpose motivates me to continue. My purpose allows me to keep the bigger picture in mind.

We cannot truly cultivate a sense of purpose unless we feel a sense of agency in our work and in our lives. Holmes (2022) discusses that academics are often victims of time scarcity in that we do not feel like we have enough time to do the things we need to do, to do them well, and to enjoy the journey. We often deprive ourselves of activities we enjoy even though those activities (e.g., joining a friend for dinner, exercising, spending time with family) bring us greater satisfaction and quality of life. One suggestion Holmes provides is to not only track time but track how we feel during that chunk of time and determine how much satisfaction and enjoyment that activity brings to our lives. It does not mean that we do not have to do the things that we do not enjoy, but we should demonstrate agency and choose to prioritize work and life activities that are good for us, mentally and physically. For me, I prioritize connecting with family and friends, volunteering, knitting, writing, traveling, and connecting with students. Carving out time away from work might seem counterproductive to getting work done, but it is not. These experiences help me decompress, disconnect, and come back to my work refreshed and with new ideas. It also allows for opportunities to share other aspects of my identity with colleagues and students and form connections.

Cultivating a strong sense of purpose is important because academia is not an easy place to thrive. For many, academia is an unknown journey that we have not traversed before. None of my friends or family have experienced this world and could provide guidance. Between competition, rejection, and fear of the unknown, I have sometimes felt lost or that that my strengths were not valued. Grant (2017) suggests making mistakes and being vulnerable is part of creative work, and Brown (2021) believes “achieving mastery requires curiosity and viewing mistakes and failures as opportunities for learning” (p. 143). It is challenging to put ourselves out there and face continual criticism and failure, but we must make mistakes to grow. Finding community is one way to find strength when facing the unknown. In my experience, it is helpful to seek out colleagues who are honest with me, that I trust, who see value in my ideas, and celebrate my strengths (e.g., a trusted colleague, advisor, writing groups, working groups). It is in these spaces that I can share ideas as works in progress, knowing that it is okay if there is more work to be done. Conversations in these communities have helped me develop self-compassion and be kind to myself when I feel like I am failing in some way. My work is only a facet of my life, and it does not determine my worth. By developing this stance, I find I am better able to show compassion to, support, and celebrate my students and colleagues. 

Cultivating Community

There is much work to be done in mathematics education and we cannot do this work alone. We have to find ways to show up, support one another, and break down barriers to invite others in to share their gifts. One way that we foster community is by respecting and valuing multiple forms of knowledge. We can do this through collaboration and by broadening who is part of the mathematics education community. When we make connections across multiple spaces (i.e., students, teachers, coaches, principals), we strengthen our community by infusing diverse perspectives. When we understand our purpose, it becomes easier to recognize the value of other’s strengths and the ways in which collaboration makes our work stronger. When conducting research or teaching, I always enter with the stance that we are all experts in our own right and there is much I can learn (Cohran-Smith & Lytle, 1993). From this stance, I am continually witnessing something new and amazing. For example, several of my practitioner articles have stemmed from relationships with teachers in which they have connect with an idea, want to share it with their students, and, subsequently, want to share it with other educators (Amarel & Wickstrom, 2023; Wickstrom, Fulton, & Lackey, 2019; Wickstrom & Aytes, 2018). To me it is amazing on many levels: the teacher expanding the initial idea and making it their own, the students engaging in the task, and the relationships formed when we work together. Sometimes we need someone to walk alongside us in our journeys and we provide each other strength in different ways. I am grateful for people in my career (my advisor, a colleague, an editor) that have chosen to walk alongside me, supported my vision, and helped me conceptualize what it could be. Each person made me feel that my voice was valued in our community and that I was capable. To foster community, we need to be that force for one another and elevate each other’s voices.

Another way we can foster community is by being compassionate with one another, both our students and our colleagues, and by developing a sense of gratitude. For example, the anonymity of reviewing articles has the potential to create a cruel environment where authors might feel like their work is not valued or that they do not belong. I do not believe that any author submits an article without careful thought and investment in the piece, so I choose to review with compassion in mind. I always start by thanking the authors for sharing their work. I do this because I recognize that when we write, it is a form of vulnerability and the authors have worked hard to get these ideas out there. Before suggesting changes, I point out what I value about the piece and ways it stands to broaden our field’s understanding of the topic. Through this, I hope that the authors see their work as an idea in progress, worthy of continuing. I also hope that these small steps might filter out to other reviewers and affect how they frame their feedback. Researchers have shown that we significantly underestimate the power of doing kind things for others even though, as recipients, we experience acts of kindness in profound ways (Kumar & Epley, 2023). Being compassionate to one another, even in small ways, enacts change. Connected to compassion is being grateful for and thanking people along our journey. When acknowledging someone and letting them know how grateful we are for them, we often underestimate the joy the recipient will feel (Kumar & Epley, 2018). I receive immense joy when a student writes me a note of gratitude. Thanking colleagues and students for all they do helps to support their sense of purpose. Practicing gratitude has also been shown to make you more likely to call out injustice and be more inclusive, fostering community (Bartlett et al., 2011).

Finally, another way we can create community is by breaking down barriers and illuminating pathways. Academia is an unknown journey, but it does not have to be that way. When we create spaces to share our experiences, both good and bad, about navigating work and life, going through tenure, and publishing, we are opening up pathways for more of our colleagues to envision themselves as part of this community and able to flourish, not just persist. I am so thankful to my family, teachers, professors, colleagues, and students who have helped me find community and purpose in this space, and I encourage all of us to continually look for ways to pay it forward and invite others in.


I am thankful for Dr. Jennifer Luebeck and Dr. Jennifer Green for nominating me for this award. I am thankful to Dr. Hyunyi Jung, Dr. Nicole Enzinger, Dr. Derek Williams, Dr. Jennifer Green, and Dr. Allison Theobold for providing feedback on drafts of this manuscript.


Amarel, T. L. & Wickstrom, M. H. (2023). Math metaphors: Windows into mathematical experiences. Mathematics Teacher Learning and Teaching PK12, 116(4), 273-280. https://doi.org/10.5951/MTLT.2022.0138

Bartlett, M. Y., Condon, P., Cruz, J. Baumann, J., & Desteno, D. (2011). Gratitude: Prompting behaviours that build relationships. Cognition and Emotion, 26(1), 2–13.

Brown, B. (2022). Atlas of the heart: Mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience. Random House Publishers.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (1993). Inside outside teacher research and knowledge. Teacher’s College Press.

Grant, A. (2017). Originals: How non-conformists move the world. Penguin Random House.

Holmes, C. (2022). Happier hour: How to beat distraction, expand your time, and focus on what matters most. Gallery Books.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2015). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions.

Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2018). Undervaluing gratitude: Expressers misunderstand the consequences of showing appreciation. Psychological Science, 29(9),1423–1435. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618772506

Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2023). A little good goes an unexpectedly long way:  Underestimating the positive impact of kindness on recipients. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 152(1), 236–252. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0001271

Wickstrom, M. H., & Aytes, T. (2018). Elementary modeling: Connecting counting and sharing. Teaching Children Mathematics, 24(5), 300-307. doi.org/10.5951/teacchilmath.24.5.0300.

Wickstrom, M. H., Fulton, E.W., & Lackey, D. (2019). Legos: Linking Fractions, Operations, and Area. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 24(6), 339-346. doi.org/10.5951/mathteacmiddscho.24.6.0338