Perhaps you have heard it said that the greatest influence in a classroom is not the equipment, or the curriculum, but the teacher. My work in preschool makes me believe this even more. In a single observation session I’ve seen a teacher be the mentor, the comforter, the organizer, the encourager, the innovator, and the janitor. In awe, I observe these early childhood educators move throughout their classrooms with a beautiful balance of efficiency and love for their students. Every day I am onsite I ask myself, “How can I help these teachers?”

At the pre-service day in August this question began to be answered. In one of our sessions, teachers were asked to write a sentence about their feelings on mathematics. Of the 300 teachers present only about a dozen gave a positive response. This result supports the conclusion of a recent study on the emotional attitudes of preschool teachers toward mathematics. The reality that “…mathematics is one of the subjects that produces the most ambivalent emotional attitudes” is something I see over and over again (Anders & Rossbach, 2015, p. 310). Specific “research on primary school teachers suggest that math anxiety and math teaching anxiety are common phenomena in this population” (Anders & Rossbach, 2015, p. 310). Unfortunately, the research shows that this translates to the classroom and that the “negative attitudes toward mathematics correlate to avoidance of offering math-related learning opportunities” (Anders & Rossbach, 2015, p. 310).

At the AIMS Center we are trying to change this narrative. However, we realize that the math story of children can only change if the teacher’s stories change first. Instead of a mandate or imposing pressure to be compliant to a set of standards, the desire of those of us on the early math team is to create a true partnership – a partnership that fosters a mentoring relationship between the research associate and the teachers. As we bring the research we study to teachers in a way that is palatable and not intimidating, we strive to value each other’s voice and perspective with the goal of increasing the mathematical opportunities for children.

The following are photos from the activities teachers created surrounding the idea of counting collections. Through this idea of counting collections we encouraged teachers to be aware of the mathematical thinking of the children. For example, we ask them to consider questions like: how did the children organize the collection? What kind of correspondence errors did children make when counting? How long of a number sequence does a child have?

As you can see from the photos, every activity was original. The teachers were creative as they purposefully set for themselves the goal to engage their children in mathematics. As we visited classrooms to observe theses activities in action, our hearts rejoiced. It was in the conversations with teachers afterward, however, where we gained a more complete picture of the changes that were happening. Teachers began to share how they were surprised by the mathematical ability of certain children. They were encouraged by how engaged the children were in counting. For me, the most impactful change came from one teacher as she shared her own anxiety about mathematics. She said, “I can honestly say that working with you has made me see math in a different way, a positive way, and I know that is helping me to be a better math teacher.” Change is not easy, and true lasting change does not usually come in one great leap. As we continue to work at our site this year, seeing the change in teachers is inspirational.