How We Teach is the Message

Math Specialist as Growth Advocate

Teachers to Teacher Leaders

Leading Teachers to Impact Student Learning, Part 1: Math Specialist as Growth Advocate

This blog post is the first in a series based on a talk I have given at NCSM 2016, AMTNJ 2016, AAMT 2017, and the T3 International Conference 2017 about growing teacher leaders and the many roles that mathematics specialists play in this work. In this post, I introduce the idea of Mathematics Specialist as Growth Advocate and explore some of the many ways that we can reimagine teacher leadership and advancement in education. See Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this blog post to continue the story.

I love names. More specifically, I love the stories behind our names. Why did our parents name us what they did? Why did we select the names that we did for our own children? These stories fascinate me.

This is my daughter, Clara Emmeline.

Clara in creek

She is named after my husband’s grandmother, Clara. More accurately, she is named after my husband’s Mamaw, which, I have found out, is one of a number of wonderful “grandmother names” that exist in Texas.

Clara and Clara

Her middle name, Emmeline, comes from my great-great-great-grandmother in England, who, according to the register of her marriage, was a spinster when she finally married at the old age of 25.

Clark-West Marriage Register

Additionally, Grandma Emeline couldn’t read and write, as noted by her “mark” where her signature would have been had she been literate. This is part of my daughter Clara’s story.

This is my son, William Albert.


William is a name that my husband and I picked out on our first date over 12 years ago. Albert is after my grandfather, Albert or Bert, who was a first generation Canadian, a farmer, an entrepreneur, and a World War II veteran.


Interestingly, Albert is potentially also the name of one of my husband’s grandfathers—my husband was an adopted child and, through research, has determined who he thinks his birth mother’s family is…but he has never made contact. His birth grandfather is named Albert, too—we think. This is part of my son William’s story.

The stories of my childrens’ names reflect their heritage—this unlikely combination of proud, native Texan meets loyalist Canadian—and they make up a part of who my children are.

So, what about me? Well, I’m Michelle and I’m an Educational Consultant. But, there’s obviously more to the story than that. What does that title—that name—even mean? I was challenged recently to consider what my job title would be if it actually represented what I did.

Educational Consultant

So, I guess I “consult” sometimes, but that’s not really what I do. I can tell you my goal—my goal is to increase student learning and to make math more relevant, meaningful, and accessible for the students throughout my region. But what do I do to make this happen? Well, I work with secondary math teachers in 40 districts throughout my region—an area of West Texas that is larger than the entire state of Indiana—a place where distance is measured in hours. In serving these districts, I provide centralized and on-site mathematics professional development and coaching, but even that doesn’t encapsulate what I actually do—or am trying to do.

So, what would my job title be if it represented what I do? After much reflection, I settled on this: my primary role is that of a Growth Advocate.

Growth Advocate

I advocate for (and strive to model) growth as a professional educator. Growth in learning, sure—but more importantly, growth in practice. Growth in implementation. To this end, I work to procure and provide leadership and learning opportunities for the teachers throughout my region—basically, I work to bring learning and leading to them.

While we’re talking about names, my Twitter name, or handle, is @HowWeTeach. There’s a story behind that name, too. One of the most lasting learnings from my year in Teachers’ College was that How We Teach Is the Message. Not what we teach or who we teach, but how we teach—how we treat our students, how we model passion and professionalism, how we value those around us, how we create opportunities for our students to do mathematics rather than just mimic procedures—how we teach is the message. Today, I contend that how we coach is also the message—how we lead educators and move education forward—that is the message of our work.

In my work as a Growth Advocate, I’ve been learning about teachers’ learning trajectories—what Cathy Fosnot and her colleagues call landscapes of learning.

Landscapes of Learning

These two-dimensional schemas present a landscape of big ideas, strategies, and models or tools that teachers may progress through as they engage in a developmental process. The Young Mathematicians at Work resources share a lot of powerful ideas in these regards, including proposed landscapes of learnings for teachers’ views about algebra, use of questioning and conferring, and the practice of kidwatching. Some really interesting stuff!

This landscape of learning view has confirmed for me that learning to teach—and/or learning to teach better—is not a single, linear pathway, but is instead a rich terrain that can take many twists and turns.

Additionally, it helps me to situate my teachers (and myself) within this larger context of continual improvement. Rather than superficially classifying teacher practice in one area as good, bad, or mediocre, the landscape of learning perspective empowers teachers to consider Where am I at in this area of my practice? and, more importantly, What is the next level of work? As Dylan Wiliam says, “All teachers need to improve their practice; not because they are not good enough, but because they can be better” (2015, p. 20).

Next level of work

This emphasis on what is the next step also actively challenges the false but prevailing mindset that “great teachers are just born”—rather, great teachers are committed to doing the work—the hard work—necessary to move forward in their practice.

These ideas are similar to those espoused by Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. Coyle describes flexible-circuit skills, such as teaching, where we have to grow “vast ivy-vine circuits that we can flick through to navigate an ever-changing set of obstacles” (p. 194). Coyle contends that these skills are developed via three elements of (what he calls) the talent code: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching.

The Talent Code

We, as math specialists and math leaders, have roles to play here—more on this in a little bit.

As a Growth Advocate, I have this goal of fostering teachers’ movement through these landscapes of learning—and a similar goal of helping teachers develop these ivy-like networks of skill that Coyle describes. But how do we do that?

One way that I believe that we can foster—and perhaps even expedite—teacher learning is by helping teachers transform into their teacher leader selves.

Teachers to Teacher Leaders

When a teacher sees themself as a teacher leader they institute initiative, drive, and ownership that empowers them to move forward in their learning—up the landscape of learning—adding new growth in their ivy network of skills.

If teacher leadership is important, I think we have to start by expanding the conception of what “career advancement” in education looks like. Here’s what it looks like in Texas—specifically rural West Texas:

  • First, you’re a teacher.
  • Next step, principal.
  • From there, you shoot for a superintendency.

Career Advancement in Education

In my part of the country, movement from one level to another is often facilitated by being a very good football coach. Only half joking here…

But that’s it—there’s your advancement pathway. Now, larger districts may have a few more steps (department head, assistant principal, etc.), but often advancement in education means moving up this linear administration ladder. What if I don’t like this ladder? What if, heaven forbid, I like teaching? I like student learning. I like the ins and outs of classroom practice. In other words, I want to be a Teacher Leader.

So, what does that look like? What options are available to me? Maybe career advancement in the realm of teacher leadership looks something more like this:

Teacher Leadership Opportunities

You could be a teacher and a conference presenter—every teacher has something worthy to share and many just need the encouragement to make the best parts of their classroom practice visible beyond their classroom walls.

Teacher leaders could be professional development providers—workshop leaders—webinar leaders. Texas Instruments has created the T3 Community (Teachers Teaching with Technology) that supports teacher leaders in these and other roles.

Teacher leaders could be bloggers. I think of some of the blogs that have profoundly impacted me as a teacher and a teacher leader—the work of Jennifer Wilson, Jill Gough, Kate Nowak—teacher leaders who made their classroom practice and professional learning visible through blogging and, in so doing, positively affected teachers around the nation and the world. Side note here, but if you’ve never checked out the Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere (represented by #MTBoS) you have a real treat waiting for you! Jot it down, google it later, have your practice forever changed. 🙂

Teacher leaders could be writers and authors in other media—journal articles, for example.

Teacher leaders could have a “formal” leadership position—department head/chair, teacher mentor.

Teacher leaders could be participants in a local/regional grant or collaborative program.

Teacher leaders can and do participate in and run Twitter chats where they collaborate with colleagues from around the world.

Teachers can be instructional resource creators and providers—from the informal Teachers Pay Teachers options to online sites like Illustrative Mathematics and Texas Instruments’ Classroom Activities site.

Teacher leaders can be curriculum writers, locally, regionally, at the state level and beyond.

Teacher leaders can serve on school, district, and state committees related to standards, instructional materials, assessments, etc..

How else? In what other ways can teachers serve as teacher leaders? Feel free to share other examples and continue this conversation in the Comments below.

As we see here, the world of education is incredibly multifaceted—which is a wonderful thing, since we all have different strengths and interests within this field we call teaching. Our conceptions of teacher leadership and advancement in education have to reflect this. And we need to promote and share these opportunities with our teachers in a purposeful way.

So, how do we help our teachers get plugged in to one of these opportunities for teacher leadership? First, as NCSM outlines in the It’s TIME leadership framework, we need to recognize the diversity of skills and varied expertise of our teachers.

Diversity of skills

We need to focus on the positive. As math teachers, many of us are wired to “find the mistake” and we have extended this perspective from “troubleshooting math solutions” to troubleshooting teaching solutions. In many ways we need to retrain our brains to purposefully institute an asset model rather than a deficit model. Rather than focusing on a teacher’s weaknesses, what are their strengths? Scientists who study workplace dynamics contend that most successful people do not try to correct their weaknesses; rather, “they focus primarily on building on what they’re naturally good at and turning these talents into strengths” (Busteed, 2014).

How does this apply to teaching? Dylan Wiliam again: “…for most teachers, the greatest benefits to students are likely to come from teachers becoming even more expert in their strengths” (p. 14).

Focus on strengths

Now, isn’t that interesting…and often counter to what we see in our work as math specialists. Many times when I travel to campuses for on-site support, administrators have lists of teacher weaknesses that they would like me to target in my work with their teachers. Now, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be cognizant of and/or concerned about our weaknesses, but Wiliam suggests that by supporting each teacher to become excellent in his or her own way we can help teachers move forward in their practice by further developing their strengths. That’s interesting. It’s also a call for more teacher choice and autonomy in their professional learning; teachers know best what interests them, what inspires them, what the strengths are in their practice—in other words, teachers know best “what aspects of their practice are likely to be most productive to develop” (Wiliam, p. 15)—and we, as math specialists, can provide and procur opportunities to help further that development.

Here’s an example of this in action: a quick overview of my journey as a teacher leader.

I was a teacher. My strengths in teaching were relationship-building with my students, integrating technology, and experimenting with hands-on, engaging learning structures. I had plenty of weaknesses.

Then, a fellow teacher encouraged me—signed me up for—“encouraged me” to present a 1 hour conference session. I realized that I had something to share!

I saw other teachers presenting at the conference—I saw educational consultants presenting at the conference and wondered “What the heck do they do?”.

I researched educational consultants and decided I needed my masters for that.

I couldn’t afford my masters. I started saving money.

I presented at 3 state conferences the next summer—I had something to share!

I read and read and read. Blogs—thank you to Jennifer, Jill, Kate, and others!—and too many books. I couldn’t afford my masters (yet) but I could buy a bunch of books.

I attended conferences like crazy—in-person and digitally.

A colleague recommended I apply for Texas Instruments’ Teacher Learning Cadre, where teachers learn to purposefully integrate technology into their practice. YES! That was one of my passions — one of my strengths! I was accepted and that experience literally changed my professional practice.

I saved some money and started, then completed, my Masters. Through my Masters studies I was introduced to the idea of social justice in mathematics and that teaching mathematics—of all things!—is a political process! I became a budding math activist.

I kept reading and reading and reading—because, much to my husband’s chagrin, leaders in math education kept writing more and more and more books.

I began leading professional development—for Texas Instruments and for our regional Service Centers.

I served on state committees focussed on curriculum, standards, and assessment frameworks.

Then, there were opportunities to write professional development programs and write state curriculum documents.

A few other things probably happened in here…and two babies…and then…here I am—speaking in California, New Jersey, Arizona and in many other states across this nation, sharing all of the wonderful things that I have learned from us, from this national community of math education specialists. How cool is that??

Growth landscape

So. What? Two things here: First, transforming teachers into teacher leaders is a powerful and limitless growth process—you have no idea where it could lead! Second, through the direction of others, I focused my development on my strengths (i.e. effective technology integration), but that created opportunities where I learned about and grew in many other areas where I was previously weak as a teacher (for example, formative assessment, curriculum, standards, mathematical explorations, facilitating student discourse, etc.). By focusing on my strengths, I progressed as a teacher overall—and I progressed in areas that were former weaknesses.

So, how do we help teachers in our care transform into their teacher leader selves? Read on to Part 2 in the Leading Teachers to Impact Student Learning blog series to explore this topic further.



Busteed, B. H. (2014). Make a difference: Show students you care. Education Week, 34(6), 26, 32.

Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how. New York, NY: Bantam.

National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics. (2014). It’s TIME: Themes and imperatives for mathematics education. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Wiliam, D., & Leahy, S. (2015). Embedding formative assessments: Practical techniques for K-12 classrooms. West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.

Michelle Rinehart


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