Interview with Leslie Hiles Paoletti

Presidential Award for Secondary Mathematics Teaching, 1991

Martha Short

In her 28-year career as a teacher, department chair, and district coordinator for mathematics and science, Leslie Hiles Paoletti was an active leader in mathematics education through her work in the state chapter of NCTM and as a member of the Mathematical Sciences Education Board. Her interest in supporting teachers led to her current studies in the Department of Organization and Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, and her work in teaching both pre-service and in-service teachers as an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Central Connecticut State University. Upon completion of her doctorate, she hopes to bridge the gap between theory and practice by helping K–12 teachers and administrators in large urban districts strengthen the teaching and learning of mathematics.

How did you get started in supporting pre-service education?

I began teaching high school physics in a suburban public school and then mathematics and science in an alternative program within a large public school. I then taught mathematics for 21 years at Choate Rosemary Hall, an independent school, where I served as department chair. Because of my strong belief in the importance of public education, I worked to obtain and share resources with public school teachers through hosting the statewide mathematics conference, developing a summer program for inner city students and their teachers, and co-directing an NSF-sponsored summer institute for teachers. As my interest in teaching students evolved into a desire to teach teachers, I decided to leave the classroom to serve as district coordinator for mathematics and science. Central Connecticut State University, which prepares many of the new teachers who go into the public schools in Connecticut, subsequently asked me to join their faculty. While I miss the daily problem-solving and school contacts that were an integral part of my work as coordinator, university teaching has afforded me the opportunity to experience new challenges. The flexible schedule has also permitted time for research. However, once I finish my doctorate, I will become more directly involved in K–12 urban education.

What advice would you give to a teacher who wants to get involved in supporting pre-service education?

It is important to understand the nature of adult learners and acknowledge and respect their perspectives and experiences. Similarly, you have to build relationships with them before you can teach them the content. I always begin my classes by having my students write mathematical autobiographies. If you’re teaching pre-service teachers, especially pre-service elementary teachers, you're going to have a substantial number of students who have math anxiety—even a math phobia—and who lack a basic understanding of fundamental mathematical concepts. In addition, some younger students in college are away from home for the first time. Others are going to school, managing their families, and working up to 40 hours a week. So understanding their needs is critical.

I explain to the students that they are going to have to do a lot of work. Making course expectations clear at the beginning eliminates students who aren’t serious or committed to teaching mathematics. If you set really high standards initially and stick to them, most students accept the challenge. It’s important to create a classroom where they can take risks, learn from each other, and collaborate. They often do their homework outside of class together and study for tests together. This approach can be a difficult adjustment for students who are accustomed to the lecture format often found in other university and some high school classes.

I require my students to visit a classroom to observe a mathematics lesson. I give them detailed guidelines about what they should observe and analyze. They often say that this is the best and most valuable part of the course. In an ideal world, pre-service education would include a much more extensive clinical or experiential component at an earlier stage in teacher education. It would be valuable for even first-year pre-service teachers to spend some time in K–12 schools. There needs to be much stronger links between theory and practice and these connections need to be made early in the program.

What advice would you give to a teacher who wants to mentor pre-service teachers?

Assisting and guiding student teaching can be a really difficult task for the classroom teacher. A more favorable relationship sometimes would be to have a student teacher work with two different teachers, because it doesn’t take the host teachers completely away from teaching some of their own students. It also allows the student teacher to experience two different teaching perspectives or styles. One of the things we work on with our student teachers is to give them time and encouragement to talk about and reflect on what’s happening in their schools and any innovative strategies they’ve tried. They may be struggling because the settings for the student teaching are more traditional than the standards-based models they have studied. I think it’s incredibly important that the supervisor spend a lot of time with both the student teacher and cooperating teacher to really know what’s going on in the classroom to help both the cooperating teacher and the student teacher maximize the opportunity for learning.

The key with pre-service teachers is to support them with effective mentoring once they get into the classroom. The mentors need to be given release time, even if it means just not being assigned cafeteria duty, because it takes much more time to teach with a student teacher than to teach by yourself. Administrators need to set up structures in the building so that the process can work.

How can practicing teachers support future teachers while they’re still in secondary school?

A lot of students tell me that they were influenced into going into teaching by a secondary teacher. The biggest impact a secondary teacher can make is to talk with students about teaching. There are a few districts in Connecticut that offer programs allowing students to assist in elementary and middle school classes as a high school elective. Many schools are interested in or have a requirement for students to engage in service learning and community service. These programs also often include service as tutors and teacher assistants.

Secondary teachers can ask their high school students to be math tutors. Most teachers would really love to have students come in their classrooms and help. In developing a program, it is critical to develop contacts with the school personnel you think you want to assist and involve them from the beginning in the planning process. Have them tell you what it is that they want and what you could do for them. Ask questions like, ‘What are the concerns in your school? What are the issues involving teaching and learning mathematics? Is there any way that some of my students could help you? How would it work? What would it look like?’ You’ve got to develop trust, open communication, clear common goals, and shared understandings for any kind of model to work.

How do you think your experiences in pre-service education contribute to the advancement of mathematics reform?

As a pre-service educator, I have a much greater awareness of the extent of the mathematics anxiety in the general population—especially among students desiring to be elementary teachers. From their autobiographies, I have a deeper appreciation of the roles that teachers and parents have played in forming students’ perceptions of their ability to do mathematics. The enduring effects of negative childhood experiences as well as the life-changing actions of individual caring teachers are far more significant and widespread than I realized. Therefore, for any reform to take hold, we must be sure that all teachers believe that all students can do mathematics, and we must make a greater effort to foster positive supportive attitudes among their parents. And we must continue to work with administrators to assist them in developing a deeper understanding of their role in supporting beginning teachers both directly and by providing the time for quality mentoring.

If you have any questions you would like to ask Leslie Hiles Paoletti about her experiences in supporting pre-service education, contact her at paolettil@mail.ccsu.edu

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