Pictured above: Michelle Brock and a banner hanging in her home office, visible during Zoom sessions with her students.
Teaching math has traditionally been about just that—teaching math. But as Michelle Brock, Carnegie Math Pathways Faculty Mentor and math faculty at American River College, notes, addressing non-cognitive aspects of learning can help math educators build a supportive environment in their classrooms that both reduces students’ anxiety and brings out their strengths.
Brock is part of the Pathways’ Productive Persistence Research and Development team, a group that develops and continuously refines the social-emotional support package the Pathways calls Productive Persistence. We spoke with her about the difference these kinds of supports can make for student success.
How has incorporating social-emotional supports into your instruction affected your students’ self-perception as math learners and doers?
It’s hard to say without actually talking to them how their perception changed but I can say how it played out in the classroom. What I’ve seen the most is the transition from students seeing my class as something they needed to be able to graduate—and not necessarily having faith that they could do it—to being able to redefine how they interpret success. I’ve seen students who would have success in math and still not interpret that as being successful. So being able to see that transition from students becoming resistant or tentative learners to becoming more willing to take risks in the class and more willing to risk not having the perfect answer, has been rewarding. I also think that was evident in the way students would realize that it’s okay to ask for help.
How do you know what sort of social-emotional interventions to use, and when, to best support your math students?
It would be lovely if you could just apply one thing to a class and it would work for everybody, but we’re all human. For me, I listen to how students are speaking about themselves as learners. When they speak to me about their troubles, I listen to the things that they say, or listen to how they speak about themselves in their groups, like, “You all are smarter than me,” “I don’t think as fast as you do.” We’re trained to think that learning looks one way. Some people only have to see something once and they can do it. That’s not me, and I don’t detract from that fact. I think demystifying that for students is important, so listening to how my students talk about themselves affects how I support them.
It sounds like that’s a really good strategy for you. Are there any other strategies you’ve found to be effective in helping your students feel like they belong in your class?
I think also watching other patterns in behavior that may not be so vocal, like attendance. In the past, I’ve heard from students that their anxiety got so high and they were so nervous that they couldn’t get to my class. So that takes a different kind of approach to be able to get them in the door. In the past, it might’ve been easy to classify these students as disinterested. Certainly, there are going to be cases in which people don’t perform because they aren’t interested, but I don’t think that’s the overwhelming narrative. I think there are other things in play that affect how students see themselves and how they perform. We need to take the time to acknowledge that we’re teaching human beings.
Yeah, for sure. It can be difficult sometimes, though, to get in touch with students who have been absent for a while. Have you found that to be the case, and if so, how did you overcome that?
I used to email when we were in-person. But what I learned when we went remote was that email may not be the best way. So, I’d watch for a response and if I don’t get one, I’d go to the phone. If I wasn’t hearing from them, I started calling them. I have yet to experience somebody say, “Why did you just call me?” It’s all been, “Wow, I’ve never had a teacher call me, and I really appreciate you taking the time to do this.” And so, just trying to figure out how to connect wherever I can. I also use a texting app on my phone (Remind) to reach out to both individual students and the whole class by text.
Suppose that beginning tomorrow, you had to teach your current math courses without any attention to the social-emotional wellbeing of your students. You’re strictly teaching math. What do you think your students would lose?
Everything. Seriously, everything. I think it’s easy for a student to fall off and not bring their full selves if we don’t even take the time to see them as their full selves, if we don’t take the time to reach out and understand if there are any barriers that we can remove from our space. We can help. This has always been something that has been in my sights since I’ve been teaching. I started tutoring when I was a senior in high school and math anxiety was always kind of high. Students had lots of stuff about math anxiety, but that still didn’t really get at the meat of what’s going on. It’s a piece of it, and I think that’s what drew me to the work around Productive Persistence, was getting a chance to name something that I’ve always felt in this space.
You say it’s a piece of it. What is that bigger thing that it’s a piece of, do you think?
I just think it’s just a bigger piece of just the whole psychology of humans. That anxiety comes from other things that are in play that we’re not always paying attention to. It’s those kinds of things that we, as math educators, haven’t paid a lot of attention to.
How would you say you measure the social-emotional wellbeing of your students?
I think from the surface and watching their participation gives me some clue, but the best way I’ve been able to measure it is through our Productive Persistence surveys (surveys intentionally built into each Pathways course that measure non-cognitive indicators important to student success at the start of the course and their change over time.). Generally, I judge that somebody is doing okay if they’re engaged and participating and they’re reaching out for help.
How has training and support from Carnegie Math Pathways helped you effectively apply social-emotional support in your courses?
It gave me access to other people who were working on the same kinds of things that I could roll questions back and forth with. And it created the space for me to really tap into my learner self. I’ve always learned something new every day I’ve been teaching, but this actually made me sit in my classroom and purposely put on my learner hat. That has helped me be able to recognize more quickly when students maybe needed a different kind of nudge.
It’s also been helpful to talk with people who are going through the same struggles with their students and realizing that it didn’t matter whether you were here in Sacramento—or New York or Georgia or Ohio—we’re all dealing with similar challenges. Being a part of this community is a chance to really get out of the silo of teaching. It just took the individualistic aspect out of teaching and made it more community-based.