Educator Joshua Sawyer shares how instructional materials and high expectations are key to ensuring learning is accessible to all.
Confession time: I have been a math nerd for as long as I can remember. At an early age, I fell in love with numbers and all the possibilities they offered. But that doesn’t mean I was always a good student. In eighth grade, I stopped doing homework, and I could have easily dropped through the cracks. But my teacher Mrs. Sears refused to let me. She noticed. She sat me down and talked to me. Rather than ignoring or immediately punishing my behavior, she took the time to get to the root of it. She believed in me and pushed me to be great. She saw past my performance and made me reach my potential.
Mrs. Sears was not the only teacher I had who gave me the gift of seeing what I was capable of. Throughout middle and high school the high expectations of my teachers, especially my math teachers Mrs. Malco and Mrs. Barrett, were a big reason I was able to live up to my potential, thrive throughout school, and head off to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to major in mathematics upon graduation.
There is no question that the amazing teachers in my life strongly influenced my own choice to become a math teacher and return home to teach in a community close to where I grew up. As I began my teaching career, something unexpected happened: The more time I spent in the classroom, and the more deeply I studied concepts and skills to effectively deliver content to students, the more my love for mathematics grew.
The act of sharing knowledge with my students was at the root of my growing passion and excitement to make mathematics accessible. As I watched the mental light bulb turn on for student after student, and saw the ability of mathematics learning to shape students' lives, I rededicated myself to finding new ways to expand that access for them.
Here’s the thing about accessibility—like high expectations and quality instruction, it doesn’t just happen. I know this from my own experience. As a young Black man, I was often the “only one” in my advanced math classes. I would look around, and in a school with a significant portion of students who were also Black, it did not make sense to me that I alone had access to all the exciting knowledge I was learning. Why weren’t my peers and friends included?
Sadly, as I began my work as a high school teacher, I saw similar patterns with few students of color assigned to the advanced courses I was now leading. Similarly, I experienced few Black male teachers as colleagues. And I knew these realities were not about the ability or potential of the kids at my school. Instead, these choices reflected larger systemic issues that needed to change.
I resolved to tackle these issues in two different ways. First, I thought back to my youth—to the teachers and family members who had believed in me—and the way I had been given the luxury to focus on my studies as simply an individual, as only Joshua Sawyer. I wanted those same expectations and opportunities for every single student. So, whether or not I personally taught a student in my class, I made a point of getting to know as many students as I could. I strived to be a welcoming open presence in the building, of creating a safe space kids could turn to when they needed one.
Second, I resolved to make math accessibility for all students central to how I approached my instruction. I already liked being able to explain difficult concepts and break them down so that mathematics did not feel foreign or unreachable. However, as I gained experience as a teacher, I learned that true accessibility means really focusing on telling the story of mathematics from beginning to end so that students experience clear, coherent learning and understand how their skills are applicable in the real world.
That’s why thinking about and presenting math conceptually (focusing on why a formula works) along with procedurally (showing students how to use the formula) matters so much. By simply teaching them how to do it, I would leave them devoid of a chance at deeper mathematical learning and growth. But if students are able to focus on how these skills build upon one another, they will have the opportunity to develop their own critical thinking rather than simply memorizing computations. And then, long after students leave my class, they will carry the knowledge and tools they have cultivated with them. The sky will be the limit.
I wasn’t short on vision and hopes for my classroom, but I was sometimes short on tools and supports. Early on in my career many of the instructional materials I used were older and not particularly high quality. These materials did not present mathematics as a progression of coherent concepts and skills but instead focused heavily on a set of procedures. Even when I knew there was a better way to make math accessible, it was difficult not to fall back on the content and the way the content was presented through the materials I had.
However, slowly, I saw the shift from old school textbooks to newer materials that embraced college and career-ready standards. These changes made a huge difference in the kind of teacher I could be. The more I was able to use high-quality, standards-aligned materials the more easily I could tell the story of mathematics, bring the subject to life, and invite all students into the learning they have a right to.
Seeing how quality materials shaped my own practice is a big reason why I joined EdReports as a mathematics reviewer. And it’s why I am devoted to advocating for quality materials in my role as an instructional coach—it’s vitally important to me to develop teachers to be as great as the ones I had growing up. Only with strong resources and professional learning can we hope to tackle the challenges of accessibility, especially in light of the new challenges that have arisen in recent months. I know how much more work there is to do, and I am ready to dive in.