Alumni Spotlight: Elizabeth Smith

Alumni Spotlight: Elizabeth Smith

By Elizabeth Smith

Tell us about your path after graduating from the MSEd program.

After graduating from the MSEd program in 2014, I moved to Providence, Rhode island, because my boyfriend was accepted into a PhD program at Brown. Prior to my move and during my time in the MSEd program, I was applying to secondary math positions in both Chicago Public Schools and Providence Public Schools. I was very lucky to have landed a job at Mount Pleasant High School, given that many people warned me it'd be difficult to find a full-time job in PPSD (especially for someone outside of the state). This is where I teach today, and I'm learning so much.

I've been teaching Algebra 1 during both years and am working closely with 9th graders. My school is a transformation school, which means that we have an agreement with the district and state to show rapid improvement in student achievement. My desire to work in such a school is rooted in the belief that all children -- regardless of their varying backgrounds -- deserve a high-quality education that prepares them for a successful life after graduation. I'm very passionate about improving math education, and I aim to elevate the inaccurate perceptions people have about our school. Last year I started a chapter of the Providence Student Union with two teachers at our school. This year I started a math team at our school through the Rhode Island Math League with another teacher at our school. The students are engaged and driven.

What brought you to teaching?

A class in math pedagogy offered through the math department at DePaul sparked my interest in math education. I worked on a project analyzing the TIMSS data where I learned that the average amount of class time spent on math was less in Japan compared to the U.S., the number of topics included in the intended curriculum was less in Japan compared to the U.S., but the average tests scores were higher in Japan compared to the U.S. I became interested in learning more about policy and curriculum in math education, and I wanted to gain experience in the classroom to better understand what helps students learn math, what role the teacher plays in their achievement, and how certain policies in education affect (both positively or negatively) the children's learning of math. I worked at Metro Achievement Center in Chicago and Mathnasium as a math teacher, and also worked as a tutor in DePaul's math department. From these experiences, I realized how significant it is to help build students' confidence in math. I worked with students who initially didn't believe in themselves and watched them rise to the occasion -- demonstrating problem-solving skills they never would have expected to develop. These experiences convinced me that I could enjoy working with adolescents, so I applied to graduate programs for math education!

How did the MSEd program prepare you for the work that you're doing now?

Overall, I genuinely believe that the courses offered in the MSEd program truly prepared me into becoming a reflective learner and teacher. I'll provide a few examples: The adolescent development class helped me recognize the psychological and social needs of the adolescents I work with, and I use this knowledge in my approach to handling behavior issues, developing relationships, and establishing a supportive learning environment for my students. The math methods class helped me deeply understand the essences of learning and teaching math, and I use this understanding of how to develop my students' conceptual and procedural skills when lesson planning, assessing, and implementing. Additionally, the knowledge I gained here is very closely aligned to the current work I do as a fellow with KSTF (Knowles Science Teaching Foundation), which helps me grow into a better math teacher as I continuously develop this knowledge. The research and analysis class helped me develop an inquiry-stance on my practice, and I consistently use this knowledge when trying to understand why certain areas of my practice are both successful and unsuccessful.

One of the most frequent thoughts I have throughout my days are directly related to what my philosophy of education is. I am incredibly thankful to have taken the philosophy of education course with Dr. Haroutunian-Gordon at Northwestern because it helped me develop a firm stance on my beliefs about education. All of the decisions I make about my practice, both in private (lesson planning, grading, etc.) and in public (implementation of lessons, classroom management, etc.), are rooted in my philosophy. Working in a high-needs school inevitably means there is a lot of "top-down" pressure to rapidly improve student achievement. It's very easy to get caught up in the politics and feel overwhelmed by our long To-Do lists, that our focus is often turned away from our kids. But I suspect (based on what I see) that this burns teachers out. What is our work for if we are not working for our kids? My passion for teaching is sustained by my philosophy of education, which is why I feel it is especially important for all teachers to take this class (and take it seriously). 

Can you tell us more about being a Knowles Science Teaching Foundation Fellow?

I became a KSTF fellow in 2013 in a cohort of 34 STEM teachers across the country. Each year, there are three meetings with other KSTF cohorts. We've been to places like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, and Indianapolis. At these meetings, we engage in rigorous and well-planned professional development that help us learn more about effective practices in STEM education. We engage in rich, cross-curricular tasks -- as students and then as teachers -- that merge the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. We discuss how we will use these practices in our own classroom, and support one another throughout the year to better utilize these practices in our classrooms. During the summer meetings, there are workshops and sessions related to a particular topic in education that are run by KSTF fellows (and sometimes teacher developers). Overall, there are multiple opportunities provided to fellows to share their knowledge with the community and ultimately grow together as leaders in education.

Aside from these meetings, I actively participate in an online community through KSTF. We coordinate Google Hangouts with other fellows to discuss an area of our practice we are struggling with and discuss a topic in education we are unable to have in our own contexts (e.g. race, inequality, discipline, etc.). Sometimes, we plan Hangouts just to check in to see how everyone is doing.

I have submitted grant proposals to attend the NCTM conference in Boston last year, and plan to apply for the Creating Balance conference in San Francisco this year. I've also received a grant for a mentorship with a professor at Brown, curriculum materials, a video camera to record my classroom for professional development purposes, and an iPad to better implement the intervention program provided for our students at my school. In the future, I have plans of writing a proposal to visit a math classroom in Japan to learn how math is taught, in hopes of bringing some of these practices into my own classroom.

What are your goals for the future as an educator?

Initially my plan was to teach for a few years, then go back to graduate school for education policy. But after working with the adolescents in my school, I can't imagine leaving anytime soon. I love the work that I do. I love providing experiences for my students that help them succeed and feel successful. I love feeling challenged in learning how to better educate my students at a holistic level. Additionally, meeting Jose Vilson this summer helped me realize that being a teacher and having an active voice in education policy need not be separate roles.

Thus, my goals have transformed. I plan to continue growing as an educator, learning how to better teach math for social justice, supporting my students in advocating for themselves and their communities, and supporting my fellow colleagues in not only advocating for themselves as professionals, but encouraging everyone to remain passionate and never forget that the work we do is for our kids and our communities.

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