Making Math Learning Environments Meaningful and Respectful for Students
Episode 3

Making Math Learning Environments Meaningful and Respectful for Students

Guest: Megan Staples

Today's special guest is the amazing Dr. Megan Staples. Megan discusses the challenges teachers face in an online learning setting and the importance of establishing relationships with students to engage them better. She also shares profound insights on classroom inclusion, how to be a good teacher, and the current project she's working on that will definitely add value to Math teachers.

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Episode Notes

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Amit Savkar:
Hello all. Amit Savkar is here again. CEO and President of Stemify.

Amit Savkar:
And today we have the fortune of having Dr. Megan Staples who is an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education in Neag School of Education. Her teaching focus is training secondary mathematics teachers. Her research focuses on making mathematics classrooms meaningful and respectful spaces for students. She has served as a PI on multiple different grants funded for teacher development and research projects. Her most recent publication is “Justification as an equity practice” published in the NCDM’s New Journal. And the most recent project she has launched is the Math Teachers Circle for Social Justice. She’s currently the president of AMTEC, the Association of Mathematics Teachers Educators in Connecticut. And she’s highly accomplished with all the different awards that she has won over the years. She’s a recipient of the Robert Rosenbaum Award, the Connecticut Council of Leaders of Mathematics Betsy Carter Award in 2019 for her service and leadership at the state level. She stays in Manchester, Connecticut, with her husband and two daughters. Megan, welcome to this podcast and thank you so much for being willing to talk with us about education.

Meghan Staples:
Thanks so much for having me.

Amit Savkar:
All right. So let’s get into this. So what is the biggest challenge to access, initiative, and motivation in an online education according to you?

Meghan Staples:
I think this is a really important question. I think that there’s huge issues when it comes to access with online education. And we’re not just talking about the hardware, right? So there are certainly issues with hardware and stable connections and things of that nature. But I think there is that engagement and the teacher knowing their students well, access issue. So certainly this is heightened by our current pandemic, which is putting everybody at home and everything is a little bit different than it used to be. So we have everything’s the same in terms of having the students are the same. The content you’re trying to teach are the same. The teachers are the same. Everything surrounding that is different. And that completely changes the equation. And the teacher can’t see the child in front of them and their facial expressions and how they’re responding and connect things. So I think the access that’s provided by relationships with teachers in our current context is one of the issues. And I think it’s all over hummable, right? All of these things can be addressed, but every teacher right now is like a first-year teacher and we’re all struggling and trying to figure out what’s going on and how to use our knowledge to navigate this new environment. So I think what we’re really missing right now is a world of experienced teachers when we’re in our online environment and developing that craft knowledge over time will certainly increase teachers ability to engage students and give them more access to the content.

Amit Savkar:
In terms of the situation that you know we already know that equity issues all over the place, how do you think that is influencing student motivation and initiative when it comes to the online education?

Meghan Staples:
I think it’s very hard for students right now to be motivated for their education for a million and one reasons. One is certainly the relationships I just mentioned. And teachers are feeling, too. So without those relationships as strong as they happen, it’s very hard for a kid to sit down and, you know, they open their Google classroom and it just looks like a bunch of to-dos and a long list of things for them to try to accomplish. There’s no connecting with the students. There’s not the teacher there to say, “Hey, I know you’re interested in blank, and so here, today’s lesson links to that.” So we’ve gone too far in one direction and taken the teacher out of the equation here. And we need to really insert the teacher back in there to establish those relationships with the kids and really help them engage again in these online settings. So I think that equity is huge there because students who inherently see college as their future and their ticket and the way that they need to go, they will persevere through this. They think it’s worth their time. They’re willing to deal with the struggles. The relationship with the teacher doesn’t matter to them quite as much. And in those moments. And if that’s not where I’m coming from and I open the screen and I don’t see my future somewhere in that screen or something motivating for my future, then this isn’t, you know, isn’t going to work as well for me. And that, this happens with all students, it’s not just girls versus boys. It’s not just any one group of kids versus any other group of kids, but we definitely are struggling to engage all students across the board. And I say engagement and motivation as really very, very similar things.

Amit Savkar:
Yeah, you’re right. Megan. That’s exactly right. So how do you think the SES plays a role in access and what they’re doing about it as a community?

Meghan Staples:
So there’s the hardware, right. There’s the concrete things. There’s the computer. There’s the Wi-Fi. Then there’s the softer stuff. Right. So. SES can mean, a lot of different things. So you’re talking about socio economic status.

Amit Savkar:
Absolutely.

Meghan Staples:
And so for me, I think about that with the cultural capital kids bring to school, the social capital kids bring to school, and the economic capital that kids bring to school. So we’ve got the concrete things. Those are the obvious things with price tags. But there’s a lot, lot more there that plays out with the access.

Meghan Staples:
I’ll tell a little story here about a student of mine who she, her senior year of college, she got a teaching assistantship so that she could support herself. And she had struggled with some of her math classes previously. And the economics of having that GAship that she had alleviated so much stress for her that she suddenly began to blossom. And she had kind of known inside herself that her struggles with math was because her mind was cluttered and stressed. But the rest of the world didn’t necessarily know that. And she really had to persevere. And she said to me with that G.H. ship, she said, this is the first time in my life I have not had to worry about economics. And that was such a free experience for her and such a game-changer for her. And so I tell that story because it’s grounded in the economics. But it is really about everything else. It’s about what you can focus on, what you can attend to. It’s about the relationships you have, what you can take advantage of. So the socio-economic status just plays a role in absolutely everything, and especially people’s ability to take up opportunities in front of them. If my life is stressed and strained and I have extra concerns around health, which comes with stress, I can’t take advantage of those things. And I think that’s one thing in education that’s tricky is we feel like we offer students so much and we do, but they can’t always take advantage of it, given how well it’s being offered or given the ways it’s being offered or given what they have to bring to the table to take advantage of it.

Meghan Staples:
So I think that’s a really, really big issue. In terms of what we’re doing about that as community. There’s a lot of great initiatives happening right now. I’m looking at the state of Connecticut and we have the pact initiative, which has just started, which is basically the idea that students, anybody can go to community college, essentially tuition and fee-free. And so that’s like the pledge to advance Connecticut is what pack stands for. Those kinds of things are huge. Again, not just because of the economics, but because then every single student who walks in a high school door and a teacher says to them, So are you going to college? They don’t get to say, I can’t afford it. And that was very, very real for a lot of students for a long time. I can’t afford it. So why bother? Right. It’s very hard to think, oh, I’m going to work hard for something that I really can’t obtain. That’s just an exercise that is not fair to put students in that spot. And so something like this pact is a wonderful things because now every single teacher can follow up with that kid and say, oh, yes, you can. Yes, you can. Go to college. And here’s how. And so making this vision of your future self very real and attainable is an absolutely wonderful thing.

Meghan Staples:
So that’s one example. Schools are going out of their way to get kids the hardware. I know that thousands of laptops have been handed out across the state, across the country, which is amazing. So there’s so many initiatives and people giving in those ways. Technology companies are giving hot spots. All kinds of wonderful things are happening. So all I’ll stop with those. But I think those are the more we provide access to students and the more opportunities they can really see, they can really take advantage of. Then we’re going to link back to the motivation engagement. And students are gonna be able to take up all the stuff that’s already in place. But they haven’t really been able to take up so far.

Amit Savkar:
Megan, the story that you just shared about the student is so real for so many of our students and effects that are felt by these students sometimes don’t even get on the radar for instructors in classes that these students are in because of such assumptions that we end up having that there are times than we have to be deliberate about sensitive about the facts that there are real issue that our students face when they are trying to deal with life really while they’re trying to get that education. And I think that is quite evident from your example. You know, you really showed some great examples of what the communities are doing across the SES agenda. Well, is one of the biggest lessons you have learned in your career. Can you share a story?

Meghan Staples:
Oh, yes. I learned many, many, many, many lessons in my career. It’s interesting because I think the lessons you learn, they suddenly get crystallize in front of you from one instance. But there’s a lot that goes on before those things are crystallized. So I guess I’ll tell another story at this point.

Meghan Staples:
And I don’t remember if this is my first or second year of teaching, but I remember teaching a class. It was one of my first calculus classes. And as a first or second year teacher, I mean, that’s pretty. They’re throwing you into calculus. So you’ve got seniors and kids are telling you their you know, their brother is older than you. And so on and so forth. So there’s your status issues involved and trying to make your way as a new teacher. So this particular group I ended up connecting really well with. I thought they learned a lot. They seem to be doing a great job. We would joke around a lot in class. And unlike some of my other classes, first or second year where I just didn’t hit a groove, I really thought that I’d hit a groove at this group. And so it sort of was. And then I managed the last few week of class, I was talking with one of the girls in the class outside of class, and she I don’t remember what she said, but she dropped a small phrase that made me realize something for her, didn’t sit as well in the class. So I followed up and she said no. She said all the joking around and the camaraderie.

Meghan Staples:
She said, that’s great. But I feel on the outside of that. And she’s like that. It hasn’t been as comfortable environment for me. And I was very much taken aback by that. And you can look at that story and say, well, of course, like you should have. You should have noticed. You should have known. I was so sort of swept up in the positive vibe, which was for me, very much like kind of almost family gatherings with joking around with my family that I didn’t realize that the environment was not supporting everybody in the same ways. And so the two takeaways I have from this is that when we’re teaching, we’re not teaching for most. We’re teaching for all. Literally. And far too often what we do is for most. And we really need to go out of our way to make sure it’s for all and actively shape every environment we’re in to attend to everybody’s needs. And I think the second big takeaway for me is that your students will teach you, but they have to see you as a willing learner. And if you’re not projecting that or communicating to them you’re a willing learner. They’re not going to teach you. And that’s really the only way to become a good teacher or to have good curriculum materials or to have a good after school program. Whatever it is, is you have to allow the students to teach you and make space for them to teach you.

Amit Savkar:
Megan, those two are just the most profound lessons that one would think about because it addresses many of the issues in terms of inclusion and what we think is inclusion. I really love the fact that you’re saying it is not for the most,it is for all of them, and we have to be deliberate about that. And then again, being a you know as a learner. As a teacher, you have to be also a learner to receive what your students are actually telling you and are willing to share with you that influence how you teach and how they receive. I think that’s absolutely fantastic. So we’re getting to the time where I’m going to be asking you to leave some of your major thoughts and new things you are actually doing. And what is best for our listeners to kind of connect with you if they want to continue the conversation?

Meghan Staples:
Sure. I’m glad you asked about new projects. So I’m very excited about a new project. I just started with a colleague of mine, Kyle Evans, and two teach your colleagues, Scott Caperlos and Gina Rivera. And we are starting a math teachers circle for social justice. So math teacher circles are a thing supported by the American Institute of Mathematics, and they occur all over the United States. They might be even broader than that. And essentially, math teacher circle is an opportunity for teachers to come together and do problem solving together and to engage in mathematics together and reflect on pedagogy together. So it’s really meant to be experiential and capacity building because often we are trying to teach in ways that we didn’t necessarily learn. And often we don’t have the community in our schools that is as nourishing and feeding us in terms of our math and our content. So our particular twist on this is the math teachers for social justice. So with the problems we are picking and engaging, people would have to do with the ways mathematics can inform our understanding of the world and our actions in the world. So when we think about social justice, we think about reading the world and understanding the world with mathematics. And then we think about acting on the world, informed by what the mathematics has told us about how the world is operating. And I’ll slip in there that if you’re talking about anything related to equity, you are talking about something mathematical. The only way we understand inequities in our society is we live sort of larger-scale data. So that’s just a little side about the value of math. So we’re starting that up and we’ve had a great response so far and we’re very excited to move that forward. So that if anybody’s interested in that or just in general to reach me, I’m best available at my email, which is my you can email Meggan that staples like you conduct even you. And that’s N E A G I N dot Staples at UC ON at E D U.

Amit Savkar:
That is outstanding, Megan. I am so happy to hear that you are actually, you know, continuing with your passion of what you do the best. And I hope that this new initiative really catches on and there is more of, you know, measurable things that we can actually learn from this initiative and hopefully scale in a way where it is a part of our fabric, daily fabric. Thank you so much, Megan, for making the time to have this podcast. And hopefully, we will have you again sometime soon.

Amit Savkar:
Thanks so much for having me. This has been great.

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Today’s Guest: Dr. Megan Staples

Dr. Megan Staples is an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at the Neag School of Education. Her teaching focus is on training secondary mathematics to teachers, and her research focuses on making mathematics classrooms meaningful and respectful spaces for students.

She has served as a PI on multiple different grants funded for teacher development and research projects. Her most recent publication is “Justification as an equity practice” The most recent project she has launched is the Math Teachers Circle for Social Justice.

She’s currently the president of AMTEC, the Association of Mathematics Teachers Educators in Connecticut. And she’s highly accomplished with all the different awards that she has won over the years. She’s a recipient of the Robert Rosenbaum Award, the Connecticut Council of Leaders of Mathematics Betsy Carter Award in 2019 for her service and leadership at the state level.

Key Take-Aways:

The teacher’s relationship to students affect a student’s engagement.

Socio-economic status plays a role in everything and especially in people’s ability to take up opportunities in front of them.

When we’re teaching, we are not teaching for most. We are teaching for ALL. We need to go out of our way to make sure we attend to everybody’s needs.

Students will teach you but they have to see you as a willing learner.

Resources: https://education.uconn.edu/person/megan-staples/

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