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Have you ever heard math content specialists say that elementary teachers have poor math content knowledge, but they have great instructional strategies? While this may be seen as harsh but for the most part it is true. Through not fault of their own colleges did not prepare elementary teachers to specialize in mathematics.
When a new, or not so new, teacher finds herself faced with having to teach math, then the harsh reality of not being prepared to teach elementary mathematics sets in. If you are a teacher and you find yourself are in this situation here is my advice for surviving your first year teaching elementary math.
1 - Find a mentor. Mentors are very helpful when trying to navigate curriculum, anticipated learning difficulties, and planning. A mentor can help to alleviate many of the pitfalls that new math teachers encounter during their first year..
2 - Use manipulatives. Many new or not so new teachers are uncomfortable with using manipulatives to teach certain math concepts. It is important to use manipulatives because numbers are an abstract concept and young learners cannot think abstractly. The use of manipulatives gives the student another math tool when the student cannot remember the algorithm then he/she can use the model as another math tool to solve the problem.
3 - Purchase math resources for teachers. There are many resources that teachers can purchase to help with increasing their math pedagogy and content knowledge. Two of my favorite teacher resources are Elementary Mathematics for Teachers and Uncovering Student Thinking about Mathematics. Elementary Mathematics for Teachers is great for learning the Singapore strategies that are being used with the new math standards. Uncovering Student Thinking about Mathematics provides teachers with short formative assessment probes that can be used to pinpoint the breakdown in student thinking with a particular concept.
4 - Learn your content. Learning the math content for your grade level is the single most important step that a teacher can take. As a Master Teacher I have observed teachers teaching math concepts incorrectly. For example, I have seen 4th grade teachers teach students to cross multiply to compare fractions. Cross multiplication is used in middle school math for ratios and proportions. So when a 4th grade teacher teaches the students to cross multiply to compare fractions then it creates a whole plethora of issues for that student once they move to next grade level.
5 - Build a Professional Learning Network Outside of School. Social Media platforms such as, Facebook and Twitter have become a meeting place for teachers. Every week on Twitter I participate in the #ELEMMATHCHAT and the #TEXEDUCHAT with educators from all over the world. Facebook also has numerous Facebook groups that have been created for teachers to collaborate. There are 3 Facebook groups that I follow: Educators Rock, Mathematics Education Researches, and Teaching Tips for Struggling Learners.
1 - Plan on Sunday night. It is never a good idea to plan the night before you teach a lesson because as a new math teacher you have not had enough time to think through the lesson. If you postpone your planning you will be frustrated with the students and have to reteach the lesson. Even though I know the math curriculum for elementary, when I don't plan my lessons I always miss the anticipated learning difficulties that the I know the students will have for certain concepts. Planning is key to delivering an effective math lesson.
2 - Follow the textbook. The first thing that new math teachers look for in their new classrooms is the math textbook. I tell all new math teachers that textbook companies put what they think should go into the math book which sometimes is not aligned with the way that the math concept should be taught. Also, the textbook companies only change the covers and standards for textbooks for different states. I have an 8th grade Pre-Algebra book from Louisiana that is the exact copy of the Texas' 8th grade Pre-Algebra book that was distributed by the same book company.
3 - Focus on computation or algorithms. Focusing only on computation or algorithms is number 1 mistake that new math teachers make. Problem solving and algorithms or computation should be practiced together. If students need more practice with multiplication give the student more word problems with multiplication. This will help to improve the students' computation and problem solving skills simultaneously.
4 - Teach math the way you were taught. I have seen 1st and 2nd teachers teach students to subtract a certain way because that's the way they learned to subtract. For example, in order to subtract 17-9 a student should not have to regroup or trade because 9 does not have any ones. Students can view 17 as 17 ones. Well many well-meaning 1st and 2nd grade teachers teach the students to regroup to subtract 17-9. This method of subtracting creates subtraction issues for students because in 5th grade they are subtracting 4 digit numbers and they want to add the extra step and regroup when it's not necessary.
5 - Focus on standardized testing. Standardized testing has little effect on math instruction because the students must first learn the math concepts in order to do any test prep. As a rule of thumb I don't do much test preparation until the 2nd semester because by that time the students have had enough math instruction so incorporating test preparation will not disrupt my pacing or scope and sequence of my lessons.
Ultimately your success and the success of your students is contingent on your learning curve. Teaching math can be overwhelming at first but once you learn all of the nuisances then you can tell you students "God didn't break the mold when he made the elementary math student."