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What Does It Mean to be a Teacher of Math?(Just Meet Daphne Orenshein)

On Saturdays, Daphne walks. She does not do it alone. She has a group of friends who get on their working shoes and do their power walk. They do it not only for the exercise, but to talk, to laugh and to enjoy the gift of year round beautiful weather in Los Angeles. But Daphne has a secret. On these walks she is not only chatting it up with her buddies or sweating her way to health, she is also taking each of the street house numbers she sees and figuring out if it is a prime number and then trying to calculate its prime root.

“I don’t know,” she says, almost as if something is wrong with her. “My head, my mind is just always swirling with numbers, with math.”

Her passion for math did not just materialize from thin air. She had critical female role models who turned math and numbers into careers, breaking down barriers in the process. Her grandmother, uncharacteristically for the time, worked in various areas of business including book keeping and accounting. Her mother gained a BA degree in mathematics from UCLA in 1965 and, four years later, enrolled in the Master of Science program in the fledgling Computer Science Department at the Technion, Israel’s premier institute of technology.  Women students in the program were in the minority and the dean even tried to dissuade her, asking “Why don’t you stay at home and raise children?”

Daphne Orenshein is a master educator. A teacher’s teacher. Her classroom has a rhythm. It has a calm. It has an excitement. All in the same breath. She does not teach curriculum, she tears it apart until it is embodied and then translated, into an organic, attainable language. She is always in motion when you walk in and so are her students, and, at the same time, so much gets done! Somehow, with all of this motion, a meditation sets in. The distinctive contradiction found in a stressful peace.

What is the greatest indication to me that she is so brilliant at what she does? When I visit Daphne's classroom, it takes me several seconds to realize that a math lesson is even occurring.

Daphne, as an educator, is also an anomaly. She has taught early childhood, elementary and middle school with her real passion being the teaching of mathematics. It is not that the teaching of math comes easily to Daphne; it’s that math is the lens by which she sees the world. What is the greatest indication to me that she is so brilliant at what she does? When I visit Daphne's classroom, it takes me several seconds to realize that a math lesson is even occurring.

There are no boring worksheets, no teacher talk at a Smartboard in the front of the room. There are games and weird songs and representations of math that transform into math learning. Place value is not studied on some old chart hanging on a nondescript part of the room, but through domino tiles where students need to physically manipulate numbers and categories to find the answers, and more importantly, understand the hidden poetry of math.

The reason that Daphne is an anomaly is that women with her skills, passion, and love of math typically do not make their way into education. The truth is often the exact opposite. When teachers select into elementary school education, it is because they have endured years of experiencing and listening to schools tell them that math was, “not for them”, that it was “for boys”, and even that their genetics did not program them for careers or the talent for the world of math and science. What we are left with is a cyclical and repeated pattern of math having a secondary status in our schools and young girls experiencing, through no fault of their own, a generational dilemma of avoidance, performance anxiety, all the way through to stereotype threat.

The answer to this self perpetuating dilemma is not necessarily to encourage more women who love math and science to go into education. This seems counterintuitive and too high a fence to climb. Besides, isn’t the idea of equity in education also to create equity in choice? Daphne chose education because she is passionate about the profession. The last thing we need right now is people “falling” into education because they cannot figure out what else to do with their lives.

The more direct and immediate solution is to take these passionate and exceptional human beings who go into elementary education to be trained, encouraged and guided by the awesomeness of a Daphne Orenshein, men as well as women. It certainly is not just about the math. Teachers need to confront and encounter their own inhibitions and negative past experiences in order to allow math to be celebrated and nurtured regardless of gender.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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