Empowered Teachers Empower Students: A Conversation with a Professional Development Specialist

by | Jul 26, 2023

“A newscast, on every TV that says, ‘Parents: Stop telling your kids that just because you weren’t good at math, they don’t need to be either.’”

That’s what Victoria Doctor envisions could brighten the future of equitable math education. She’s not joking. Victoria is a consultant with the Algebra Project, currently providing professional development support with teachers at Confluence Academies in St. Louis, Missouri. She also teaches at Fusion Academy Buckhead in Atlanta; an independent school where, in her one-on-one lessons, she teaches 6th through 12th graders everything from algebra to computer coding.

Victoria Doctor

Victoria was first introduced to the Algebra Project and the Young People’s Project in 2015 while majoring in mathematics at Spelman College in Atlanta. She was preparing a research project in abstract algebra when a family member involved in the Project, unbidden, began to recruit her as a College Math Literacy Worker (CMLW). Victoria wasn’t sold. She was pursuing a promising academic career in research mathematics. A math literacy initiative that focused on fostering teacher professional development seemed far removed from her own educational and career goals as she herself had never expressed any interest in teaching. Nonetheless, she agreed to an initial meeting to discuss a short summer gig with the Project.

Recalling that first meeting, she remembers being introduced to Bob Moses, Bill Crombie, and Greg Budzban. Each would have a profound effect on her, the throughlines of which remain evident to this day.

Bob, the late founder and president of the Algebra Project, introduced her to a new culture of classroom teaching. “The culture was just so welcoming and you couldn’t tell who was the teacher and who were the students. I had never been interested in becoming an educator. The Algebra Project made me want to become a teacher.”

Bill, Director of Professional Development at the Algebra Project, was quick to notice her potential. He encouraged her to apply for the competitive Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship. The fellowship is designed as a three-year Master’s degree program, partnering with universities to train soon-to-be teachers in STEM education.

“Bill pushed it really hard. He told me to get my master’s and train alongside other Woodrow Wilson Fellows. Their curriculum aligned really well with the Algebra Project’s.”

She was one of 63 aspiring educators to receive the fellowship in 2017, earning her Master of Arts in Teaching Secondary Mathematics from Georgia State University.

Greg, who has been active in curriculum development with the Project since 2001, now works alongside Victoria at Confluence. The pair recently facilitated a Summer Induction, after working closely with Confluence teachers the past semester. Next school year will be the first implementation year for Algebra Project classrooms in the St. Louis school.

“So, what I’m doing with Greg, I’m acting as an Experienced Teacher. Where he’s in charge of the curriculum, I’m helping the teachers come up with different creative ways to implement it with the students.”

She notes the importance of the Experienced Teacher role in situations like this. For Victoria, it was her own work as a CMLW and seeing with her own eyes the impact the Algebra Project had on students that convinced her to join the team. For many teachers, when an Algebra Project PD Specialist arrives, it is their first ever brush with the unique pedagogy.

“They didn’t get the introduction that I got, so they need heavy support on like, ‘okay, this is what we did, this is why we did it.’”

Throughout her time as a PD Specialist for the Algebra Project, Victoria recalls common obstacles when working in schools. The Algebra Project serves underserved schools that are struggling, and when teachers are used to hearing about new fads and techniques in the professional development space, it can be hard to cut through the low signal-to-noise ratio resulting from programs coming and going each year. Often with teachers, the first hurdle one can face is cultivating buy-in.

“Teachers unfamiliar with the Algebra Project are often like, ‘My kids aren’t gonna get that.’ You can face pushback, where they’re like, ‘I’ll try it, but I’ve been teaching for ten years and it’s not going to work.’”

Victoria hasn’t yet found the perfect response to alleviating this skepticism. Her current strategy is the same one that convinced her years ago: You have to see it to believe it. Teachers, hungry for new techniques to help their students despite their own reservations, bring the pedagogy into their class with an open mind and often surprise themselves with the results.

“Once they give it to their students, that’s when they really realize, ‘Oh, they do understand this.’ And they get very shocked. The kids are engaged. The kids are trying. That kid that probably wasn’t paying attention before is interested in doing the Road Coloring activity and talking about why they decided to color it that way. It opens the door for a lot more communication. And it is less teacher-centered, it’s more student-centered, so the kids kind of have no choice but to participate.”

While a healthy dose of skepticism is common, it isn’t always the case. At Confluence specifically, Victoria has noted teachers who are immediately excited to experiment with what they’ve learned during their PD session. One teacher in particular, she recalls, who, even during the months of learning curriculum wherein teachers are not required yet to use it in their classrooms, was already implementing different lesson plans and trying the pedagogy with her students. Victoria has an idea as to why that might be: “She read Radical Equations.”

Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Projectis a 2001 book co-authored by Bob Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr. which details how the Algebra Project came out of the 1960s voting rights movement in Mississippi, and explains the unique Five-Step Curricular Process Bob developed which is used both in classrooms to teach students, and in PD with teachers. It’s the same curricular process Victoria first learned as a CMLW in 2015.

Even outside of teacher professional development, Victoria finds herself using the Five-Step Process in her day-to-day life. Most notably, in her work developing unique lesson plans for her students at Fusion. She noted a recurring theme when it comes to why kids complain about not being able to learn math.

“You have science where they’re doing experiments. Even in elementary school, you’re doing experiments in science. And with English, they get to write these creative papers and they get to analyze and talk about their perspective on a reading. But with math, it’s like the teacher says this, I need to write it down. And if I don’t do it the exact same way they do it, then I’m wrong. There’s no real flexibility. So, that’s the major pattern.”

She knows that the Five-Step Process can’t be perfectly implemented in her instruction, since it relies so heavily on group activity and her lessons are one-on-one, but she creatively uplifts what she views as its two most important bulwarks, its flexibility and its emphasis on everyday language. She wants her students to use their own, natural language to discuss the classroom material and to give them latitude in choosing what helps them best understand the concepts.

Outside of working with students, the Five-Step Curricular Process has been an important professional development tool for her. Teachers themselves have different learning styles, something the five steps of the process aim to incorporate through a combination of physical experience, visual application, and dialogue. She recalls times when teachers, focused on discussing technical aspects of mathematics, inadvertently left their colleagues behind who weren’t as comfortable with the depth of the discussion. This is why, prior to Step Four: Feature Talk, the Five-Step Process utilizes People Talk, which serves as a more accessible on-ramp to technical discussions.

Even before the People Talk portion, the Five-Step Process exploits drawing as a learning tool in Step Two: A Picture/Model.

“It can be frustrating to collaborate when one doesn’t understand the terminology their peers are using and the hints that are given to facilitate the conversation forward. The other teachers are helpful in terms of explaining their thought processes in different ways and also giving the other teacher the opportunity to turn the discussion into an abstract drawing.”

Victoria’s aim during these sessions is that teachers come to have the same faith in their students that she has in them. She says she is proud of how hard she sees teachers productively struggle and hopes that it convinces them their students will be able to do the same.

Victoria Doctor Teaching

“Everyone is capable of learning. You know, everyone should be able to have a chance. It’s all about equity, not equality. Being an educator, it is your responsibility to come up with a way for your student to get that information. It can’t always be traditional.”

It’s hard to imagine Victoria in a role other than teaching. Her aspiration for everyone to understand mathematics is palpable and she wears it on her sleeve proudly.

“I’m very passionate about people learning math and not writing it off as something that (only) ‘smart people’ get.”

Over eight years have passed since she met about working over the summer with the Project and she is as hopeful as ever that, given the right tools and resources, every student and every teacher can find success.

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