Shenandoah University doctoral student Kimberly Jackson loves math, her three children – all college juniors – teaching, and thinking big. So, it’s unsurprising that Jackson, who hopes to revolutionize math teaching, recently received a $1,800 Robert J. Stevenson Scholarship from the Association of Teacher Educators.
Jackson, who is a high school math teacher in Loudoun County, Virginia; a student in Shenandoah University’s Doctor of Education in Administrative Leadership program; and a single mom, learned about the scholarship from Shenandoah Associate Professor of Curriculum & Instruction Karrin Lukacs, Ph.D. She applied, in part, because the financial help was attractive. However, it wasn’t the only reason she sought the award.
“I strongly believe in the value of teachers and teacher leaders,” Jackson said. “There is not enough recognition given to teachers for all that they do in and out of the classroom to support each other and further their own development. This scholarship from the Association of Teacher Educators echoed my sentiments by acknowledging, supporting and rewarding teacher leadership.”
Revolutionizing math instruction
“I envision the role of math teacher as part ambassador and part coach,” Jackson writes in her scholarship application. “Ambassadors proudly promote that which they represent in all its glory. They create bridges with welcoming attitudes that encourage others to love their initiative, too. Math would benefit from an image overhaul, and that begins with the teachers. Coaches inspire their players to give unrelenting Herculean effort in the face of multiple forms of difficulty. Surely our students would be better off tackling and practicing math just like they do for the obstacles they encounter in athletics,” she said.
The change she seeks, in teaching and learning, starts with acknowledging the difficulty of the subject for some middle and high school students, she said. “We need to do our utmost to make it as accessible and enjoyable as possible, all while understanding that they are children who are still developing. We should never discount their abilities because a student who struggles one year may soar the next, or vice versa, which is both healthy and normal. One thing I tell my kids is that I don’t want anyone (myself included) saying in class is, ‘This is easy!’ – meaning that I don’t want some kid proclaiming that something is simple when it might be easy for him or her, but it might not be for someone else. Those types of comments by teachers and classmates can be very demoralizing. I also don’t want to hear any adult saying, ‘You learned this last year so you should know how to do this.’ We have no idea what happened to that child last year or over the summer, so we have no justification in shaming them for not remembering something. This should go without saying, but math classes should be a shame-free zone!”
Creating avid math consumers
Mistakes are celebrated in her class, she said, because they’re indicators of effort and show students what doesn’t work. And, while math requires work and practice, she tells her students that it exists to serve them. “Math is here to help us solve problems and answer questions. The more math we know, the easier it gets – truly – because parts of math begin working together to make what you’re trying to do easier.”
Jackson said she also wants to adjust how students view learning, from a “have to” mindset to a “get to” attitude, so that they see themselves see themselves as consumers of education. “I tell them to imagine how they’d feel and what they’d do if they went through the drive-through lane at Chick-fil-A and got shortchanged on their french fry order. They usually respond that they’d be mad, and they’d get out of the car and go get their full order of fries that they paid for! Well, I ask them to imagine a world where kids cared as much about getting all of the education they are due (and have paid for through taxes) as they care about getting a full container of fries. Imagine how they’d devour their coursework and feed their curiosity. Imagine how they’d behave in class and treat their fellow hardworking students. Imagine how they’d encourage others to do the same.”
Aside from being passionate about how to teach math, she finds the subject itself beautiful and fascinating. “There are so many mathematical mysteries that intrigue me, like the fact that if you divide the circumference of any circle in the entire universe of circles by its diameter, you get one very weird, irrational, unending, nonrepeating decimal known as Pi. I love that the number zero wasn’t always ‘a thing.’ Someone discovered it! I love that zero itself means nothing, but put six zeros to the right of the number 1 and you’ve got a million! I love that multiplying any number by 1 does absolutely nothing to the original number, but multiplying by 0 (which is technically nothing) annihilates the original number! I love that knowing something as simple as addition and basic multiplication can help you find solutions to quadratic equations by factoring them. And don’t even get me started on the brilliance of probability and statistics!”
Growing as a teacher and student
Jackson is not only a committed teacher, but also an engaged student who traveled to Finland in 2018, with Shenandoah’s education program. The trip showed her the importance of focusing on the whole child, bringing fun into the classroom, and the value of problem-based learning. “During this trip, Kim truly personified the Association of Teacher Educators’ values of advocacy, leadership and professionalism,” writes Dr. Lukacs, in her scholarship recommendation. “At every opportunity, she asked thoughtful questions and made insightful observations – particularly with regard to the experiences of the students who were culturally and/or linguistically diverse. However, it was when we were learning about Tampere High School’s project-based learning program that Kim’s commitment to life-long learning became evident.
“In fact, over the past year, she has implemented what she learned that day in her classes with impressive results (despite the Finnish presenter being doubtful that the model would work with math classes) – and what’s more, she displayed her teacher educator skills by sharing what she learned with her colleagues. Put simply, the other faculty leaders and I unanimously agreed that Kim was the ideal student for a global learning experience,” Lukacs writes.
In addition, through her doctoral studies, Jackson said she’s gaining a complete (or, as she said, using a math term, “360-degree”) view of education delivery, from school law and policy-making to curriculum development, school finance, stakeholder involvement and more.
Becoming a leader
Jackson’s leadership path developed in tandem with her teaching career, which called upon her to engage in lifelong learning. She first earned certifications to teach middle school math and science, and then to teach online courses. Then, she expanded the math certification to high school courses and earned a new certificate, this time in administrative leadership, from Shenandoah. She enjoyed her time in the certificate program, and it piqued her interest in Shenandoah’s doctoral program.“The desire to keep contributing as a leader in math educational reform led me to apply for the Ed.D. program in educational leadership,” she said. She was also drawn in by the strength and diversity of the program’s core team: Professor and Department Chair of Leadership Studies; Ed.D. Program Coordinator Catherine Shiffman, Ph.D.; Associate Professor of Quantitative Methods Sarah Daniel, Ph.D.; and Professor of Research John R. Goss, III, Ph.D., and by its cohort model.
Her doctoral work began in the fall of 2017, but not smoothly. “Within a week or so of starting, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer,” she said. “Fortunately, with two surgeries and radioactive iodine treatment, I reached cancer-free status in the summer of 2019. Despite this unexpected diagnosis, I was able to stay on track with my cohort.”
She expects to sit her qualifying exams in May 2020 and to defend her dissertation within three semesters after that.
Experiencing Shenandoah with one of her own children
There’s an additional bonus to being a Shenandoah student – she’s sharing a university with one of her three children, Emily, who is a Shenandoah exercise science student in the process of finishing her undergraduate degree in three years and applying to physical therapy and athletic training programs around the nation (including Shenandoah). Her son Troy is a third-year computer science major at the University of Virginia, and her son Mahari is a junior economics major at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
All three of the children, two of whom were adopted from different countries, are approximately the same age and are known as “the triplets” to extended family. Being a full-time educator and single mother yielded opportunities for growth and achievement difficult to capture in a standard resumé, Jackson noted in her scholarship application.
Getting ready to motivate teachers
Her years of unique experience, both in and out of the classroom, have led her to develop two career goals: “1) to become an educator of new teachers, career switchers, or teachers seeking master’s degrees; and 2) to become a supervisor of a division where I can impact how educators view their responsibilities to students vis á vis math. My vision is that math teachers will embrace their role as content ambassadors as well as Angelina Jolie served refugees with the United Nations. My teachers will motivate their students to persevere as well as Duke’s Coach K motivates his players. This scholarship will help me help others ensure that Every Student (does indeed) Succeed, especially in math.”
Photo Credit: Rambling Man Photography (Larry Wharton)