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Q&A: Math, Diversity & the Common Core

Posted by Nicholas Gray on December 19, 2013

Nneka SutherlandNneka Sutherland, a student in Bank Street’s Leadership in Mathematics Education program, is an experienced teacher and a veteran of both public and charter schools in New York City and Montreal. In addition to pursuing a master’s degree at Bank Street, she is a full time teacher at a public school in the high needs area of Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Nneka, this year’s recipient of the Priscilla E. Pemberton Memorial Scholarship, attended the Pemberton Society’s “Lend a Hand for Scholarship” reception at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City on November 19. The Pemberton Society is the College’s affinity organization dedicated to promoting diversity in its student body and in the field of education. Since its inception, the group has raised $340,000 for student scholarships.

What brought you to Bank Street?

Nneka Sutherland: In my career, just about everybody I’ve been impressed with in this field came here. That’s what pointed me in this direction. There’s a more genuine interest in children’s learning, and having them explore different ways of learning, and meeting them where they are.

Where are you in your degree program?

I’m nearing the beginning of my last semester. This will be my third summer (it’s a three-July program). But I’ll still come back often because I can’t imagine not being part of this.

This semester’s been the most difficult because we’ve had a lot of work over the year. We’re doing a case study of a student, and we do action research for both years. It can be overwhelming at times, but it’s really meaningful work.

Do things you learn here apply to your work?

There are many things we talk about in graduate classes that are applicable in my classroom. It’s not just theoretical — it’s all practical. My program is a leadership program, so just looking at different aspects of leadership has been helpful. I’ve been involved in a lot of leadership activities in my school — being a part of committees, doing professional development... I’m still learning, but I wouldn’t be able to even participate in those things if I didn’t come here.

I have a principal at my school [Bank Street alum Meghan Dunn], who’s new — this is her second year — and I always say to her, “you’re like a firefighter!” I imagine she always has a lot on her list of things to do, but so many things just pop up nonstop. Bank Street prepares graduates for that.

What are you working toward with the Math Leadership program?

What I really want to do is math coaching, which is still being a teacher but also providing support for other teachers’ instruction. Ideally that’s where I want to go as a next step.

Why should a teacher looking into master’s programs consider Math Leadership at Bank Street?

Because math is life! It’s everywhere. If you feel like you’re good at math, or not good at math, this is the program for both sets of people. I really feel like it’s the best thing I ever decided to do for myself.

Is there a great need for strong math teachers in schools today?

Absolutely. And I think that’s true in all subjects. But I think it’s more frequent that schools have teachers with a good mastery of English language arts, which is not as often the case with math. And I feel that a lot of elementary school teachers feel really uncomfortable with math. But it probably has a lot to do with how they were taught math, and I feel like that translates in many ways — they either avoid it, or don’t feel comfortable teaching it in a way that’s different from the way they learned.

Were you always drawn to math?

I was always drawn to math, since elementary school. I loved word problems. I remember the first day we learned word problems thinking, “You can put math into words and sentences?” And there was a point in my education — I was about 11 or 12 years old — where I felt like maybe the teacher didn’t know the best way to teach me, and it was hard because that was my favorite subject and suddenly I felt lost.

Is it true that many in the program were not initially drawn math, but discovered that they loved teaching it?

I actually feel like a lot of people I’ve met who inspired me in math education were people who didn’t feel comfortable with math growing up. If you’ve had that experience, you might be more inclined to help students having that experience, and to think about what you can do to make it better for them.

You received a diversity scholarship through the Pemberton Society at Bank Street. What has that meant to you?

Priscilla Pemberton was really involved in encouraging people of color to apply here and to become matriculated students. Everybody who knew her was pretty impressed by her, so I was really honored to receive the scholarship dedicated to her. I was asked to speak at a Pemberton ceremony in November and met some of the people who chose me, and it was such a great feeling that they were impressed by me! I wasn’t expecting that at all, and it was a great feeling to be honored in that way. I hope that Pemberton is able to have many more scholars in the future.

The politics around education — especially in New York City — have become so heated in recent years. In your 12 years of teaching, what do you see as the bottom line?

People who become teachers do so because they want to help. They want to do well, and they want students to do well. For those who are struggling, I think it’s often that if you don’t know better you can’t do better. There are constant changes in the New York City Department of Education, and teachers feel overwhelmed a lot of the time when standards and the curriculum keeps changing. I think there needs to be deeper thought about what works for children, and time to facilitate a change, because it’s not working right now. I think it’s pretty obvious that all kids don’t learn the same way. So we have to be flexible. And it doesn’t have to be one thing that everybody adopts as long as it works and then is replaced by something else. That’s kind of how it’s been in public school education. But all schools, all districts, all neighborhoods are not created equal.

I work in a school that opened last year, and it’s phasing in to one of those phasing-out schools because of "failure." That’s what they’ve been doing with public schools — closing down low performing ones and opening new ones in the same space. But I don’t know if the new ones are getting the resources they need to be any more successful. I don’t know if that’s the answer.

When they do that, there’s new administration and the school gets a new name. There’s a percentage of teachers who have the option to stay in the school. But with that there’s often a weird conflict with people who were there before who have been told they failed. Most teachers try to do well. I’ve done this twice, where I’ve worked in a “new” school with a mix of teachers from before and after the “old” one was shut down, and I think more often than not it just causes conflict. Luckily, at my school there's a common goal of making positive change, and new and old teachers have been able to work together for the benefit of our children.

Can evaluations be meaningful and helpful?

Absolutely, if that’s the goal. Everybody’s in some point of development. I think evaluations are good in general. I don’t know if one evaluation can work for every single school, because schools do different things. There are project-based schools, and schools in different neighborhoods with kids coming from different demographics. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. But I do think evaluations are necessary. For teachers, having feedback is always a good thing, and you have to be open and transparent and figure out what you’re good at and what you can work on.

Regarding standards and the Common Core, are there things that all kids should be required to learn before they advance?

There are things that kids should know, bearing in mind that all kids are not the same. I don’t see the Common Core as a bad thing. Some of what it’s being used for, like the focus on testing, isn’t great. But I feel like having a baseline is a good thing.

Do you anticipate any changes ahead for New York public schools?

I know there’s a lot of talk about getting rid of networks, which are groups of schools aligned by philosophy, not by geography. My school is in a great network — CFN 112, which is a progressive network — but my school, along with the middle school in our building, are the only schools in my neighborhood in that network. The network gives us access to so many great professional development opportunities, and we’re always learning how to be better progressive educators because we’re in that network. If networks were dismantled we wouldn’t have access to that anymore. We’d just be part of the district we’re in. So that’s a big concern.

Children come from different places and have different experiences. There’s an urgency for them to learn, but we have to allow them to learn. There are so many 4th and 5th graders who are so nervous in those months before the tests because they feel like there’s so much at stake, and they feel pressure, and I feel like 8-year-olds shouldn’t. And we have to fix that for them.

tagged: diversity, leadership, math, networks, standards