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Coffee Break: Math Teacher Noelani Davis on D.C. Public Schools, Better Professional Development and the Virtues of Stealing

Coffee Break: Math Teacher Noelani Davis on D.C. Public Schools, Better Professional Development and the Virtues of Stealing_5fbeb04ab8bb7.jpeg
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Coffee Break: Math Teacher Noelani Davis on D.C. Public Schools, Better Professional Development and the Virtues of Stealing

Coffee Break: Math Teacher Noelani Davis on D.C. Public Schools, Better Professional Development and the Virtues of Stealing

One of the few things that everyone in the education debate generally agrees on is that we need to give teachers better and more tailored professional development (PD). The hard part is figuring out how. And like in a lot of tough areas, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) is helping show us the way with its LEAP program.

Noelani Davis is a math teacher at D.C.’s Eastern High School and a LEAP believer who sees better PD days—and better teaching for students—ahead.

Are you a coffee drinker? Tea? How do you take it?

Caffeine is one of my lifelines. I have a cup of coffee every morning. I even have a coffee maker in my classroom.

I prefer coffee with cream and no sugar, but in desperate times I have resorted to drinking black coffee.

Here’s what I remember from freshman algebra: Always Use Monomial Factoring First. And I can still hear Mr. Rychtarik yelling “AUMFF!” (albeit lovingly) at us. But I have no idea what it means any more. Please tell me math instruction has changed.

Let’s not forget FOIL and PEMDAS! Math instruction has definitely come a long way since we were students. Chances are, if you could memorize every step your teacher did in class, you could pass without much mathematical understanding. Math instruction was focused on what students could “do” and not what they knew.

In the last five years, there have been huge shifts. A big component of this is the implementation of Common Core math standards across the country. Common Core is pushing teachers and students to explore math in a way that is analytical and rooted in conceptual understanding.

And when I hear “professional development,” I still think “Teacher Institute Days” with big “y’all-come” district-wide seminars. How has professional development evolved and improved in D.C. schools?

Professional development has also come a long way. When I started teaching, most of my PD was “y’all come and sit and listen” style. I remember sitting in many of those sessions and thinking, “Why do we deliver information to teachers using methods that we know don’t work with students?”

We would never cram 50 kids into a room and lecture for three hours. The district listened to our concerns, and I’m so impressed with the initiatives that have been created to address this gap.

Instead of having PD four times a year, all teachers in the district will have a weekly 90-minute “LEAP seminar,” which will be used to collaborate, innovate, reflect and grow with a team of teachers at their school. Teachers will be supported during and after seminars from a LEAP leader, who is usually a teacher leader at their school that has experience teaching the same subject.

This year I’m serving as the mathematics LEAP lead at my school. I’m so excited about this program and really pumped to be able to work with my department on a deeper level. Teamwork makes the dream work!

Teaching seems like the hardest profession with barely any built-in collaboration time. For a long time, it was pretty much: “There’s your classroom. Figure it out. Best of luck.” How helpful is it to have regular collaboration time with other classroom teachers?

During my first year teaching, a veteran teacher told me that good teaching was simply “beg, borrow and steal.” I thought her words were funny at the time, but ultimately I quickly learned how true this statement was.

I started getting better by begging strong teachers to let me observe their classrooms, borrowing other teacher’s curriculum, adapting it to fit my student’s needs and stealing successful instructional and classroom-management strategies.

I would never be the teacher that I am today if I didn’t have the opportunity to collaborate and shadow my peers. This is the heart of LEAP.

Talk about your background and what made you want to become a math teacher.

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was very young, but I realized I wanted to teach math when I graduated from high school. Math has always been my favorite subject. I love the way it challenges me. It’s like mental gymnastics, and I find it fascinating how it always meshes itself together and makes sense of the world.

Photo courtesy of Noelani Davis.

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