How the business world taught me to be a better math teacher

By Josh Rhodes

I spent a better part of my adult life working for a Fortune 1000, one of the largest privately held companies on the planet. My job was to sell products and services to businesses, and later, manage employees who did the same. I will leave those companies unnamed, but I enjoyed my time in this line of work. I earned a decent living, met a few life long friends, was provided the opportunity to travel throughout much of this beautiful country and learned some skills that I could never learn in a classroom, or quite frankly in public education.

When I left the corporate world after nearly a decade, I never envisioned I would be able to transfer those skills to education. I currently teach 4th grade math at Wilder Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky. I am in my fifth year of teaching and could not be happier that I made the switch to public education. Teaching math is challenging, more because of mindsets rather than the actual content.

Dan Meyer once said, “I teach math. I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it, but is forced by law to buy it.” This is probably how many of our students feel in the math classroom, like a consumer at a giant box store that only sells one product. In addition, many students believe that they may rarely need to classify quadrilaterals based on their properties when they are adults. And let’s be honest, they probably won’t.

The challenge is to connect it to another skill or to make the task engaging enough that they momentarily forget that they are actually learning content. For example, I teach factors and multiples to my 4th graders. I cannot say in my adult life that I have called upon my knowledge of factors or multiples very often to budget money, measure for a piece of furniture, double a cookie recipe, estimate ratios of baby formula to rice cereal, or try to solve one of life’s great mysteries. However, I have used other math skills to do these things. So if I can time it right in my multiplication unit to introduce factors and multiples, some light bulbs seem to shine brighter by helping students make connections from one skill to another.

Each time I start a concept in math I try to take myself back to my corporate days when real world application mattered more than traditional education. I ask myself, How might learning this concept be applied to a situation I encounter either in my professional life or personal life? Some people call that relevance, I call it necessary. How we teach depends on a myriad of factors, such as the teacher’s personality and style, the makeup of the school and students, or if the teacher is expected to create content or follow a math program, but helping students make the content relevant should be a priority no matter the situation.

Let’s revisit the “real life” math situations I mentioned previously, more specifically, measuring for a piece of furniture. Visual and spacial skills are necessary to decipher the complex code that can be furniture directions. Even though there are not any complex calculations involved in this example, a person must still be able to estimate lengths and angles. Such connections can be made if the teacher is intentional in helping students make them.

Another common math application I use involves cookie recipes and multiplying benchmark fractions. Doubling or tripling a cookie recipe is fairly common practice in my household with up to 8 mouths to feed on any given night. If an oatmeal raisin cookie recipe calls for ¾ cups of sugar and I want to triple the recipe I simply multiply ¾ by 3. Giving students the opportunity to look at actual cookie recipes and double or triple each ingredient provides them with this “real world” relevance.

Teaching math can be an uphill battle, usually not because of the content but because of the manner in which we allow students to practice and apply skills. Even if a teacher has a school math curriculum to follow, he or she should still look for ways to adapt the content to be relevant and accessible for students. Call it what you want — project based learning, inquiry, or deeper learning, but this type of instruction eliminates the need for a grand sales pitch in a math lesson, and tempts students to engage deeply in the content.