New Teachers and Math Education in the Middle East

A conversation with Noor Hazim

Jillian Mendoza

Math & Curriculum Expert

There are so many ways teachers are prepared to enter the classroom, and in states like California where teacher shortages are approaching critical mass, residency programs have been introduced to help get more educators in classrooms.

I recently sat down with Noor Hazim to learn more about teacher education programs in the Middle East, gifted education, and her views on math education in the region. Noor is a new math educator in Abu Dhabi.

Jillian Mendoza: Tell me a bit about your background in math education

Noor Hazim: I recently graduated as an applied mathematician. I enjoy applied mathematics as it is a mix of data analysis, pure math, and has connections to all of the sciences. I earned my degree from Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. I am part of a special program called Future Teachers, which is funded through the Ministry of Education, where students earn a degree in a STEM field and commit to becoming a public school teacher for four years after graduation. My dreams are to transfer my love of math to the next generation through teaching.

Mendoza: So have you had any classroom experience yet?

Hazim: Yes, I first began by tutoring at my university for the lower level math courses. Khalifa University sends us opportunities that are available, and I saw an opening to teach in the Sandooq Al Watan’s Mawhibatna program. The program is for gifted and talented Emirati youth, and although they were only accepting PhD candidates for the position, I decided to apply anyway and was accepted. I think the interviewer appreciated the way I talked about math and was able to see my passion for math education.

Mendoza: That’s wonderful! So what was your first teaching experience like?

Hazim: It was so amazing! Through the Mawhibatna program I saw how as teachers we can make math fun, and this makes students want to learn even more. Even though the program is for younger students, I was so surprised that they could learn advanced, college level mathematics. I think they were able to accomplish so much because we (as instructors) were able to take challenging content and present it in simplified terms. I really believe students can learn anything, and as teachers it is up to us to determine how we feed information to them.

Noor and some of her gifted students in the Mawhibatna program at Khalifa University.

Mendoza: So what did you learn about teaching complex math topics to young students?

Hazim: When I am teaching, if I use words like “this is complicated” or “this math is hard”, my students will think they cannot understand it. If I say something like, “This is hard, but if you do X, Y, and Z you can get there”, the student will begin to see how they can access something that might otherwise seem too challenging. I reflect a lot on my own time as a student, I used to have this internal dialogue like, “Ok this is hard but if I take it piece by piece I can do it”. AS adults it comes down to the words, expressions, and behaviors that we show our students. Our own attitudes and mindsets towards math can have a big impact on our students.

“Ok this is hard but if I take it piece by piece I can do it”

Mendoza: Yeah, mindset can have a big effect on how students perceive mathematics

Hazim: It’s such a big deal, and I have seen a lot of teachers who will actually unknowingly discourage students. If you say things like “I can’t” or “This is hard”, students will take your words and use them as their own. It’s all about having an open mind and modeling this to your students.

Mendoza: Do you feel that math mindset is emphasized enough in teacher preparation programs?

Hazim: I don’t think it is talked about enough. I think that as teachers are beginning, it would be really beneficial to have to take psychology courses which go over the mindsets of children. I have read psychology books and it really changed how I think about teaching and learning. With our students, they are very impressionable and we are helping with the building blocks of their education. I have so many mindsets and perceptions as an adult that I can link directly to influences in my childhood, and I think it is helpful for teachers to be aware of our impact on student attitudes towards math.

Mendoza: Do you feel that families play a role at all in developing a positive mathematical mindset?

Hazim: Yes. Math is a kind of language, and students pick up on how it is spoken in the home. For example if a kid goes to his mom and shows her what they have solved, if the mom doesn’t validate the child then the kid begins to think math is not important. If a child feels this way at home then it carries over into our classroom.

Conversely, there are some families that like to solve problems with their students, or play math-focused games at home. When families talk about math at home it can change the kid’s perspective. Students can come into class and feel special, knowing they have connections to learning in and outside of school. Another important aspect for families to consider is how they react to their child’s math grades. If a student doesn’t know something yet, it’s best not to make them feel bad about it. When students associate math with performance, it can be really tough to feel confident and successful. I’ve seen this carry over to students all the way through university.

Mendoza: So do you feel that making mistakes helps students to grow?

Hazim: I think maybe we all need to celebrate mistakes more, and show they are not a big deal. The reason we are so ashamed to make mistakes in math is because we are worried about being wrong. In reality, most of the time no one cares when you mess up in math! Even when students give each other a hard time about making a mistake, it is often the case that the student doesn’t actually know any more than their peers. It is helpful for parents and teachers to help raise our students to be humble, and confident enough to celebrate their mistakes.

Mendoza: I love that mindset, we both know as mathematicians that higher level math is all about making mistakes and leaving proofs unfinished! How can we make math enjoyable for students even when they might make those mistakes?

Hazim: When teachers keep up to date with what’s happening in the world of their students, it helps build a connection. I like to come up with games or activities that incorporate math with student’s interests. I know it is extra work, but if you can do some research and incorporate a pop culture reference into your lesson, it shows students you are interested in who they are. For example, we know all kids these days are on TikTok, maybe you pick a song from there and find a way for it to be played during an activity in class. If we connect student’s interest in our classroom, they can start to associate math with other things they like and care about.

For students to feel the teacher understands them is so important.

If I feel like my teacher understands me, I am more likely to want to be in their class and be interested in what they have to say. Some students are hesitant to ask questions, they could have really valuable contributions to make to the class but they hold back because they aren't connected with their teacher.

Mendoza: What do you think about the perceptions of math in society?

Hazim: Having spent time researching at Khalifa University, I started to realize that perceptions about mathematics were way off. When people would ask me what I was studying, they thought it was insignificant to just study math. My senior year of high school, my teacher actually told me not to study math!

The Future Teachers program through the Ministry of Education is great, because they promote all of us to study the pure sciences (not just engineering and medicine), so that we can promote these fields to the young people we end up teaching. There are so many opportunities for students who go on to study mathematics, it can take you to any of the applied fields like physics, engineering, or the applied sciences.

I think people are starting to value mathematics, though when I tell people I am going to teach they are shocked that I am “only” going to be a teacher.

Mendoza: Who has been your most influential teacher?

Hazim: My favorite teacher is my professor, Dr. Samuel Feng. In class he makes challenging topics so easy to understand. When I’ve completed research with him, he really values the process more so than the outcomes, which is something I wish to instill in my own student’s minds.When I was completing my senior research, my results were negative. He said even if the results are negative we would publish them anyway. He taught me along the way to value the learning more than the outcome. I also appreciate that he is so humble about his intelligence and abilities as a professor.

When Noor is not thinking about complex mathematics,

she spends time on her many art projects.

Mendoza: Do you have any advice for new teachers?

Hazim: A while back I had an existential crisis that I would lose my mind if all I thought about all day was math. Especially when doing research, it becomes quite overwhelming. I have a creative side in me that I don’t want to lose, so I had to learn to juggle both.

I recommend finding balance in your life between math, teaching, and your other passions. When I need a break I work on my art and my business creating jewelry. Making jewelry helps me to turn off my mind and go on autopilot for a bit, then I can come back to my teaching or my research with new energy. I recommend all new teachers find something they can do to maintain some peace of mind and continue pursuing all the things you love to do.


Continue the conversation with Noor by reaching out to her on LinkedIn. You can also read her thesis paper here.

For new teachers and seasoned veterans alike, Magma Math is currently accepting applications for our Educator Innovator Lab, Cohort 2. Click here to learn more.


Jillian Mendoza is an international math and computer science educator. She is passionate about math equity and loves thinking about unsolved math problems.