Alex Smith’s childhood dream was to become a teacher.
“When I was five I even got a teacher’s set gift for Christmas,” she said. “My sister became my student. I never wanted to be anything else.”
As Smith grew older, her love of mathematics grew and she felt destined to become a math teacher.
“I always loved the right and wrong nature of math as a student,” Smith said.
Smith was right about her future career. But she was wrong about why she would enjoy math so much more as an adult.
Now an assistant principal at Heath Middle School in Greeley, Colorado, Smith said the beauty of math lies not in the final answer but in the journey it takes to reach that answer.
“English was hard for me when I was younger because it was about ideas and thoughts and feelings, whereas I always knew when I was right in math class and I appreciated that,” Smith said. “But now I love math even more because of all the different strategies. Math can also be about ideas, thoughts, and feelings.”
Smith is proud to affectionately be known as “The Math Principal” at Heath, where she oversees a tight-knit math teaching team that collaborates with a shared vision of serving the whole student.
Smith is energized by her school’s close partnership with Gradient Learning, which offers an externally validated curriculum from Illustrative Mathematics. The curriculum promotes active learning, gives students the opportunity to develop their own ideas about how to solve problems, and encourages them to share and hear about each other’s thinking.
“It all goes back to helping our kids feel successful and learn how to overcome challenges,” Smith said. “I like that multiple strategies are really honored in this work because we are all trying to get to the same goal, right? How you and I reached that goal might be different, and that’s okay. That’s great.”
Smith especially appreciates how her math teachers are able to customize the lessons to better resonate with their students. That flexibility was on display in a classroom this year when the students worked on math problems that included statistics from the Greeley Stampede, one of Colorado’s most popular festivals that began over 100 years ago and features a rodeo and a fair.
Instead of learning formulas in a silo, Heath’s students were able to apply math in a real world context to an event that directly connects with their lives. Heath’s teachers adapted a course provided by Illustrative Mathematics and had students solve problems about the amount of tickets sold and revenue generated by the Greeley’s community celebration.
“We took the problem that was provided and brought the local hook to it,” Smith said. “That made it more relatable and fun for everyone. You’re bringing the everyday into the classroom.”
Smith said the secret to “making math fun” is quite simple.
“Math doesn’t have to be showy and a carnival of games all of the time,” Smith said. “Small changes can make big differences.”
“I’m so excited about the positive change we are all making by focusing on the whole student and giving them that sense of belonging.”
One example of that is seen when Heath students use whiteboard desks to work together on equations in class.
“I call that sneaky math because they don’t realize they’re doing math anymore,” Smith said. “They’re just talking to their friends and drawing on desks. That’s the key to having fun in math.”
Smith and Heath’s six math teachers regularly gather before school to discuss strategies and collaborate on ways to best achieve their whole-student vision. By doing so, Smith said she’s seen a positive impact on the overall morale of the team.
“I think because we’re focusing this whole student lens on our students, we’re also able to focus it on our adult teammates and ourselves,” Smith said. “We’re no longer ignoring a critical part of what it means to be a human. That time and focus we’re able to give each other during the work day has allowed us to really be our best selves when teaching our students.”
With Heath Middle School Principal Dawn Krueger’s unwavering support, Smith can’t contain her excitement when thinking about how much more her math team can grow in the years ahead.
“Everyone is going to be seen and heard in this school, whether it’s teachers, students or whoever,” Smith said. “I’m so excited about the positive change we are all making by focusing on the whole student and giving them that sense of belonging.”
Smith is thankful that she fell in love with math as a child, and hopes to spread that same lifelong appreciation of the subject to Heath’s community of learners. She’s a firm believer that math provides countless opportunities for students to gain valuable skills that will benefit them long after they graduate.
“Overcoming something when it’s challenging,” Smith said. “Those opportunities happen in math class daily. Every day I see kids being able to persevere through a problem that they didn’t think they could do. Those moments let them realize, ‘I can achieve success,’ and that feeling translates to other aspects of their life.”