Toni Hillman is a part time student in Ball State’s online master’s in mathematics education. With some stints in international classrooms behind her, she recently signed a contract to teach 6th-grade math at the American School of Milan. As part of her teaching approach with 8- to 12-year-olds, she makes it a priority to help them overcome fears and anxieties in mathematics so they can develop positive, mathematical mindsets.

“I was so well-prepared for my interview due to my recent course work!”

Q: Why a master’s degree in mathematics?

A: I had already completed Ball State’s 15-credit leadership in mathematics certificate, and I decided it was “now or never” to complete a full master’s degree. This was prompted by the fact that I began teaching internationally in 2015 in Dakar, Senegal. For many of the international schools, a math degree is required to secure the work visa for a teaching mathematics position. Also, the job market in Europe is quite competitive.

Q: How has your education impacted your professional life?

A: Just recently I signed a permanent 2-year contract teaching 6th grade math at the American School of Milan starting 2018-2019. I was so well-prepared for my interview due to my recent course work, and I am so excited to teach all math again!

When I was earning my graduate certificate for high ability education at Ball State, I learned many new ideas during the Creativity course. That year I had a particularly difficult, hard-to-motivate group of elementary students. However, when I used some of the ideas from the Creativity course, my students responded in amazing ways. They loved acting out concepts, debating, and learning in ways I had never tried. I realized the problems I’d been experiencing weren’t completely the fault of the students. I needed to consider alternate ways for this group to learn. The Creativity course opened my eyes to new, out-of-the-box strategies for getting my students engaged and thinking!

Q: What is it like teaching mathematics in another country?

I taught two years at an international school in Senegal. Our students came from 50 plus countries, so there were many cultures in each classroom. Prior to working in Senegal, I was at an independent school for high ability students, and I had so many students there who loved math. When teaching internationally, what struck me most in both the 3rd grade class and the 5th grade class that I taught was that many of the students disliked math. The students had been “doing math” most of their school lives via workbooks, and so problem-solving skills were very weak. I definitely felt a difference in attitudes towards math. My second year at the school, some of us had shelved the Everyday Math workbooks in favor of more investigative math. I will always remember one of my students exclaiming, “I never knew math could be so fun!”

Q: Can you highlight an example of how you engaged your international students in mathematics?

A: A colleague and I began a grade 4/5 Math Olympiads team after school. This had never been offered in the past, and we were thrilled to have almost 20 students participating each year.  Our goal for the students was to build perseverance. We focused on metacognition, stamina, and recognizing various types of problems that commonly appear in math competitions. I think, in our two years of doing this after-school math team, we provided some much-needed enrichment for the students. Many carried with them the skills and perseverance they developed in this class on to middle school. The middle school math teachers often commented on it.