Tiffany Gruen

Tiffany Gruen

By Tiffany Gruen

“You’re teaching math? You HATE math!”

An honest question and statement made to me after discovering I would be teaching a new grade level and content area. Simple answers: Yes, I would be teaching math. Yes, I hate math. In my 11th year of teaching, after living in the English/language arts world, steeped in social studies standards creation and implementation, I was taking a giant, blind leap into the subject that mocked me through my entire childhood – that dreaded math.

As an elementary teacher, the possibility of teaching all content areas is always expected. However, after the Kentucky Academic Standards were adopted in 2009 and implemented in 2010, the textbooks we had access to failed to provide curriculum aligned to the state standards. In that context, teachers from across the state and in my home district of Covington Independent divvied up the standards work, specialized in one content area and began designing curriculum.

Teachers were either the ELA teacher or the math teacher at a grade level, rarely both. I jumped at the opportunity to dive into the ELA standards, my area of strength and passion. I left the math standards to the amazing folks who would be teaching the math content. However, after five years of standards implementation, it was time to balance my content knowledge and plunge my feet back into the math world. Jana Bryant, the Kentucky Core Advocate captain, promised, “You’ll be so well-rounded, we’ll be able to roll you down the street!”

With that promise in mind, I simply asked myself, “So now what?” How in the world would I be able to provide my students with authentic, rigorous math experiences, when I had no idea what that should look like? There were some cooperative professional developments offered, but in order to attend, I had to leave my students for two days. What could I do to build my capacity as a math teacher while not sacrificing valuable teaching time?

In my professional learning community (PLC) at John G. Carlisle Elementary, my teaching neighbor Theresa Sipple also was tasked with teaching 3rd-grade math. Lucky for me, she is one of those amazing math folks that is willing to mentor and guide her colleagues’ professional growth. Through our PLC meetings, we deconstructed the standards, created assessments, discussed possible lesson ideas and analyzed student performance results. Meeting after meeting, Theresa helped me to visualize what all of these standards could look like for students.

It didn’t take long before I started busting through our adjoining door – like Jerry Seinfeld’s neighbor Kramer in his television show – with a content notebook in hand, asking even more questions about student work and diving deeper into the craft of teaching math. The students watched as I threw Theresa questions and she would expertly provide quick, effective answers. It was growth mindset on public display – my learning made public for my students!

Within a couple of months, Theresa and I realized that her strength in math, paired with my ELA and social studies experience, could create an atmosphere of constant professional learning and growth. With this new awakening, we determined a way to co-teach the majority of our day.

Teamed with our instructional coach, Molly Walter, who helped us align science and writing instruction, our adjoining classrooms have become a live teachers’ workshop. Questions fly across the room from both students and teachers. We engage one another. We accept challenges. We work through the friction and embrace the messiness of blending our expertise. We build on each other’s ideas until we’ve created this beautiful synthesis that can only emerge from deep respect and collaboration. The students are learning and growing. So are we.

Within the past few months, we have purposefully and explicitly taken our daily professional learning into our own hands. Building our instructional capacity always begins by asking questions, then actively seeking out the answers. In my building, I am surrounded by master teachers who have so much to offer the profession. Unfortunately, we as teachers spend so much of our time isolated in our classrooms that we are rarely afforded the opportunity to sneak a peek at what is happening right next door.

Open your door. Burst into your neighbor’s classroom. Ask questions. Find the strengths of the teachers surrounding you and tap into their wisdom. We can build our personal professional capacity by actively engaging in our most vital questions, seeking the answers from those around us. As you begin planning for next school year, how can you build this collaborative spirit into your schedule?

Do I teach math? Yes.

Do I hate math? Absolutely not. Fortunately, I have Theresa, a great co-teacher and mentor that helped spark the passion that I had lacked since my time as a student. Now, I can share this new-found passion with my own students.


Tiffany Gruen teaches 3rd-grade at John G. Carlisle Elementary in the Covington Independent school district. She is a Hope Street Group Kentucky Teacher Fellow and a member of the Kentucky Core Advocates and the River City Project.