Teacher Spotlight: Alys Lee

Ohana in the Classroom

Jillian Mendoza

Jillian Mendoza interviews Alys Lee, a high school Math teacher in San Diego, CA. Alys explains that by building strong relationships within her classroom and creating a family, her students find more success.

Read the complete interview:

Alys (bottom, second from right) and her fantastic math scholars

Tell me a little bit about how you ended up teaching math.

I actually went to college thinking about becoming a history teacher and got my history degree from UC San Diego. After studying history for 4 years I realized I didn’t love it enough to make a career. I knew I wanted to work in education, and I got my credential during the recession when schools were handing out pink slips left and right. So, I applied to be a teaching assistant where I was tutoring and grading for a math class.

I didn’t major in math because I used to think women couldn’t do that, so I didn’t have the confidence to pursue a STEM degree. I knew I was good at math and realized it was a strength in my skill set to teach it to others. So, I got a supplementary math credential and the rest is history.

You have such a strong rapport with students, especially as a math teacher where many students are resistant to the subject.

I’ve learned a lot about building relationships with teenagers; we see them as adult bodies with facial hair, but at the end of the day they are still kids. Teenagers are still maturing and trying to figure out who they are. A big mistake we all make is to treat them with too much responsibility too quickly, without letting them just be kids. When I develop relationships with students, I like to give them the opportunity to just be kids: let them play a game and shed the persona that they have to be cool or look pretty all the time.

When you give teenagers the opportunity, they will express who they are on the inside. Let them throw a ball around and have some fun- when they catch the ball they stop thinking about whether their hair is perfect or if they look tough, they open up and get silly and vulnerable. It’s like this secret moment of fun and play that opens up a willingness for them to grow and just be themselves.

Students working on a puzzle in Ms. Lee's class

So you really focus on students as people before jumping into anything math-related.

Yes, because math has such a stigma to it. We have to stop thinking about math as a subject where you can only be right or wrong. Math isn’t about getting the right answer, it’s about the journey to the destination. As teachers we have to celebrate the journey, the mistakes, the Aha moments, and put the emphasis on those pieces. It stops being about right or wrong, and we change student’s perception on who the authority is in mathematics. Is it about what the textbook says is right or is it about what you have in your mind?

Another mindset shift is that so many of our students aren’t going to be STEM majors or even use lots of math topics in their lives. What we can do as teachers is show them that math is a journey where you learn logical thinking, and that way of thinking can be applied to so many other aspects of life.

Before we jump into math content in my classroom, I want to make sure my students see me as a learner as well as a teacher. I like to showcase that I also make mistakes and if students ask me if they have the right answer I reply, “I don’t know, let’s work through it together”. I take myself out of the situation as the authority on math and I allow students to judge that for themselves. Math is not an individual journey, it is collective.

Absolutely, we’ve all had the experience of sitting in rows and copying notes as fast as possible, but is that really what we want our students to think of when they think of math?

I want my students to care about the skills of their classmates just as much as their own skills and knowledge. I teach them to care about one another and about the classroom as a collective. In my class, math becomes a social subject, where it’s not about individual performance or just getting a problem right on your own paper. I help my students shift their thinking, so that they want to help their group out as well as themselves.

Ms. Lee’s students look forward to group work

That’s wonderful, do you have any structures that help support students to work in such a collaborative way?

Yes, in my class we learn the value of Ohana (note: ohana is a Hawaiian word meaning family). Part of Ohana in my classroom is about keeping the group together and not leaving anyone behind. To practice, I’ll have students try staying on the exact same line at the same time in their group. Eventually they know when doing group work that every group member needs to understand a problem before moving on to the next one. If I go check in with a group who is on question 3 and I ask one of the members about question 1 and they don’t get it, the group knows they all have to go back and work on question 1 until the whole group feels good about explaining it.

Eventually my students learn that they are responsible for the collective understanding of their group.

We want our students to be supporting one another, and becoming inquiry based learners instead of focusing on being done first or getting the most correct answers. My students love Ohana, they come to value one another’s work and because they know they can’t rush ahead without their group, they start to slow down and really think through their own process. Ohana also increases compassion for each other, my students will initiate Ohana practices in their group even when I’m not reminding them.

How do you reinforce Ohana as a classroom value?

In the beginning I have to remind students about our value of Ohana, but by the time a few weeks or months have passed it becomes a habit they turn to without even thinking about it. They take initiative to act with the spirit of Ohana and they really run with it. I love to see students encouraging one another and justifying their work to their group members to create a collective understanding of whatever it is they are learning. It really helps build a class support system, we as teachers have so many students to look after and we never want anyone falling through the cracks.

During the pandemic, Alys’ students created their own norms for virtual collaboration. Each color represents a different student’s ideas

Is there anything you do to help support all students, to ensure no one ‘falls through the cracks’?

One of the first things I do with students is help them develop a sense of identity. I reinforce that my care for them has nothing to do with their math abilities or how well they can solve a problem or do their homework. Their intrinsic value as humans has nothing to do with their math skills and I constantly remind them of that. Sometimes I have to have one on one conversations with students, especially those who struggle or resist math for whatever reason. I give lots of one on one check ins and I show students I care by inviting them to meet with me for support. I’ll tell them, “Hey, I’ll be waiting for you after school!” and they want to come so that I’m not waiting alone.

I support my students by asking questions, maybe not even about math but to show them I want them to succeed in life.

It helps build their self esteem and confidence, and other pieces of their identity. As teachers when we are willing to reach out, students will talk to us. All students like to talk about themselves but often they’re waiting for us to ask. It really helps them feel valued to know we care about them as people.

It sounds like a lot of your success with students is based on work that has nothing to do with standards or lessons or content.

A lot of teachers think that the solution to a challenging class is more planning. But planning isn’t a cure all, the major issue we have to face head-on is our mindset. Start by asking yourself, ‘What is important to me? What are my values?’

One of my favorite quotes from a PD training is this: “What if your classroom is the last math class or last piece of education a student ever has?”

If you think that way, then what skills, mindset, values, and identity do you want to impart on your students? Sometimes my class really is the last class students take in math, they could drop out or move schools. It helps me reframe what I want my students to learn: to be resilient, to be good thinkers, to be caring, and to be inventive and expressive. Then I have to figure out how to incorporate these big ideas into my classroom. How can I get my students to just be kids? How can I help them to be expressive? Notice none of these things have to do with memorizing formulas or graphing, they have to do with instilling good habits and mindsets. If we do this every day we can help our students to become better humans.

Ms. Lee and her class made Valentine’s boxes. Look at those smiles!

Thanks so much Alys! Any other wisdom you have to share with teachers?

Go back to thinking about teaching as a process and journey. You must be willing to unlearn all the things you think are good teaching, and always be open to new ideas. One of my favorite aspects of teaching is that it is a continuum. Even after 5, 10, 15 years of teaching, still think of yourself as a beginner. Never become stagnant, always aim to be better as an educator. Take joy in the journey, and take the challenging moments as an opportunity to reflect on how to continuously improve. It's ok if you don't have it all figured out, find your ‘why’ for teaching. We have long term goals, but learning is a process for teachers as well as students.


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