Interview with Susan Weiss

Presidential Award for Elementary Mathematics Teaching, 2000

Susan Weiss

Susan Weiss is currently the math and instructional technology specialist at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, Massachusetts. Her major emphasis is on supporting Kindergarten through grade five classroom teachers, but she also runs math enrichment groups, facilitates math lunch groups, and uses computers to teach math to fourth and fifth graders.

How did you get started in giving presentations?

I was a 1991 Woodrow Wilson Fellow and, as part of that program, I received money to attend conferences and then to present at conferences. Some of the teachers were from Texas, and since I attended their large state conference and became familiar with its format, I began speaking there. Also, in 1994, after attending Rutgers University’s Discrete Math program, I started presenting my work with discrete math at national and local conferences.

What advice would you give to a teacher who wants to get involved in giving presentations?

Identify your passion. Think about the ideas you really want other people to engage with, that other people will benefit from thinking about. It’s a good idea to ask instructors you’ve had to suggest conferences you might present at, ones that are good matches with your style and topic. Also, I suggest you present with someone else. That way you can bounce ideas off one another as you plan, and you can support each other during the presentation. Also, rehearse ahead of time.

How do you make yourself more comfortable and confident before giving a presentation?

Being organized is key. I prepare my materials well ahead of time, and I make a checklist for myself. Because I like to do hands-on workshops, I think hard about how I’m going to distribute materials during the presentation, and how I’m going to collect them back.

How do you juggle your teaching responsibilities with making presentations?

Since I tend to do my presentations on what I’ve been teaching, my presentations are a natural outgrowth of my work in classrooms. Since conference proposals are often due a year in advance, I have time to work with students and teachers to collect the materials and student work I think I will need for my presentation. I also find that attending conferences gives me good ideas to take back to the school, so I see the two, teaching and presenting, supporting one another.

What advice would you give to teachers presenting to parents?

Prepare ahead of time to keep them busy. Have the parents solve problems as adults, talk about how they solved them, and then compare their strategies with those used by their children. Think ahead of time about the kinds of questions they might ask and prepare responses.

What advice would you give for presenting to a group of teachers you don’t know?

Make sure you know what grades they teach, and give them a problem at the very beginning of the presentation so you can assess their skills, including their collaborative-working skills, and adjust your presentation accordingly. Be kind to people who make mistakes. Try saying, “I didn’t think of it that way,” when necessary. Also, participants have good ideas to share, and you can learn a lot from them: try taking their ideas to heart. After presenting, do a self-evaluation. Ask yourself: Did people stay on the topic? What surprised you? What new ideas surfaced? Sometimes people articulate things you didn’t think about, which can be helpful. Be kind to yourself. Sometimes only a few people show up to a presentation due to circumstances completely out of your control. Don’t take it personally. Also, each audience is different: you never know what their prior experiences have been. Who knows; your presentation may follow one that got the audience in a bad mood, in which case you can acknowledge the situation and use their tension, just like you have to do with children sometimes. Be well prepared and rehearse. Take each presentation as a learning experience. Don’t give up.

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