Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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The Right Equation

Rhonda Peña’s passion for numbers started at a young age. She grew up practicing math with her older siblings and planned to become a teacher in her home state of Minnesota. But after finishing her degree at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minnesota, Peña attended a job fair that changed her life. She was offered a position as a math teacher on the spot at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) ISD, and except for the location, it was everything she wanted. She couldn’t turn it down.

Peña intended to teach in Texas for one year and then return home. That was 29 years ago. After three years at PSJA ISD, Peña moved to Bryan Elementary in Mission CISD. She is now in her 26th year there. As a fifth-grade math teacher, Peña is passionate about incorporating algebra into the curriculum, even at young ages. Her goal is to help students grow both their skills and their confidence in math.

Peña has been named Teacher of the Year on her campus twice—in 2012 and 2018—and won the H-E-B Excellence in Education Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. ATPE sat down to talk with the 2019 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year about math anxiety, parental involvement, and building relationships in the classroom.

How did you decide to pursue math education?

I grew up as the youngest of 10 kids, and I had a lot of help at home from my brothers and sisters. They loved math, so they would sit with me and give me math problems. They would show me coins of different varieties and tell me to make 50 cents different ways. Numbers and math intrigued me, and I always loved math all through school. Back when I was in school, it was a lot of abstract math, not a lot of concrete math.

I had really good teachers growing up, too, and I’m sure they did a lot of the things we do now. But I can remember algebra being tough, and I wish somebody had used the word “algebra” when I was actually doing it in elementary, so I wouldn’t have been so afraid. That’s my goal—to help our kids get ready to tackle it and be confident.

How would you describe your approach to teaching math?

I think it’s important to start with the concrete. The kids have to be able to see how the math works. A lot of kids come to class knowing a trick to solve a problem, but they’re not sure why it works. I try to really go in to why math works instead of just saying, “This is how you do it, memorize it.” It’s really important for them to be able to see, move, and feel the math before they move into the abstract and problem solving, which is a big problem for the kids mainly because a lot of them are intimidated by reading. They see a long story problem and just shut down or try to grab the numbers and manipulate them with the easiest operation they can. My approach is to make sure they can see the math before the abstract comes into play.

Why do you think talking to young kids about math is so important?

Students need to start working out algebra problems and getting that confidence as they go into junior high. I don’t want them to feel like I did when I first stepped foot into algebra. I was shaking and afraid of it. It’s important to introduce the word “algebra” in kindergarten and let students know they’re already doing it—even if they don’t truly understand it then. At least if they’ve heard the word, they can say, “I’ve done that and feel good about it,” and can hopefully have more success with it. 

Can you explain what algebra for kindergarteners looks like?

They do number sentences: two apples plus something equals three apples. That is algebra because they’re finding an unknown, even though we wouldn’t introduce it that way. You can still let them know they’re doing algebra just like the kids in junior high. It’s important to try to boost them so they’ll go home and be excited to tell their parents, brothers, and sisters, “I’m doing algebra.” I’ve heard the kids say it to their parents, so I know they truly get excited about it. I want to get them more excited about math. It hurts my heart that kids are afraid of it when there are ways to get them hooked and get them comfortable and confident.

When I started teaching third grade, I said, “They can do it, too.” I stumbled on a program that uses manipulatives, and I was able to get the kit and a smartboard application. It spiraled after that. The district coordinator for gifted and talented loved the program and wound up getting it for those students. Right now, all our gifted and talented kids in third through fifth grade use the kits. To think that it spiraled from my one classroom to the entire district—it warms my heart that we’re impacting that many kids and hopefully helping them love math and algebra.

What are you working on now?

My next task is to get parents involved more. We’re going to meet with parents to show them how the algebra kit works. I’m hoping they can get the word out and that more parents will have hands-on time with their kids when they do homework. A lot of times kids come home and parents are unable to help with some math because of how its delivery has changed. Math is still math, but the delivery is different.

Have you found that a lot of your students’ parents have math anxiety as well?

Whenever we have conferences, parents will say they don’t like math or they’re not good at math, and they’ll say it in front of their kids. I don’t want the kids to hear that and think, “My mom or my dad isn’t good at math, so I’m not going to be good.” I’m hoping we have a good show of parents and will be able to repeat the session again.

Tell me about the after-school club you started last year.

A lot of our kids like to stay after school to do more algebra. Last year I implemented the Algebranators (like “Terminator”) club. I had fourth- and fifth-grade kids, and not just gifted and talented kids because I didn’t want to just isolate it to the top percent of kids. We had quite a few come to do algebra after school, so that was a fun club to start.

Students feel less intimidated in a social setting because they know the other kids in the class are there for the same reasons they are. They don’t feel as shy or intimidated as they would in a normal classroom setting. Being a smaller group helps, too. They are able to ask questions without feeling like they are being singled out for not knowing.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that educators face today?

A struggle I have with education now is that we’re trying to teach the kids our curriculum for the year, but the test is just looming over them. They get so nervous and are unable to even do it, and to do that to 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds—it really is a struggle. I understand that we have to have these tests to measure where students are and their growth, but it’s hard to swallow sometimes as an educator. I know a lot of educators feel that way. I’m not alone.

That’s why we need to have parents be truly involved in their kids’ education and to be supportive of all their endeavors, whatever they want to participate in. Parents need to encourage activities outside of school, sports or clubs that students enjoy, to help them become a well-rounded child and not be so worried about everything related to the test.

In addition to testing, in the classroom, differentiation can be a challenge. Students have different ability levels, and teachers need to be able help students who are struggling without neglecting students who get it. It’s important to give them challenging activities to work on because they already have the grasp of the lesson. Differentiation is something we have to do daily to make sure we give each child a path to success.

How do you define success for your students and yourself?

I don’t believe anyone has success without failing first. They need to be able to look at those failures as a learning moment for themselves and ask, “Why did I make those mistakes?” and say, “I’m going to learn from this one and build myself up.” When we have setbacks in the classroom, we talk about them openly with the kids. I always say, “It’s OK to not know, but it’s not OK to not try.” You have to have some failures in order to get to where you want to be.

I also feel that you can’t measure students’ success based on a test score and, unfortunately in education now, a lot of emphasis is placed on state exams and test scores. But that exam doesn’t measure creativity, artistic ability, compassion, or communication skills. I know it’s hard as a child to hear you didn’t pass, but I always tell them, “You did your best, and that’s all we expect you to do.” If they’re showing growth from one year to the next, they’re going to be fine.

If my students live their lives loving what they do, doing what they love, and are kind to others, that to me is success. I’m trying to make them realize that they have a lot more to offer than that test score.

What advice would you give to new teachers?

When I was first starting out, I had a teacher who told me to pick my battles. I was getting frustrated and down on myself for every little thing that happened in the classroom, from behavior to academics. As a teacher, you have so much on your plate each day, and it’s a lot to handle emotionally. Sometimes you have to say, “This is not as important as it might seem in the moment. I’m going to deal with it, but I don’t have to take it so hard today.” Choose your battles and prioritize.

Also, never give up on that one student you might feel is a little lost. You’d be surprised what will happen if you just take a little bit of time. There’s something called a 2 x 10 strategy where you sit with the student and talk with them about stuff not related to school to get to know them. If a student is having a hard time relating to you, try to get them to open up to you to build that relationship. It’s two minutes a day for 10 days talking to them. I did it with one of my students who was having a hard time. He was struggling with me being the teacher and he didn’t want to listen, so I would sit down with him and just talk. He looked at me strange the first time, wondering why I was talking to him about stuff outside of school, but the next day he warmed up.

Building relationships is important. You want students to know that your classroom is a safe place and that you’re a family.  

Author: Interview by Leslie Trahan