Rose Miller, Staff Writer

Elementary math instructor Shannon Larsen (photo by Kris Kelley)

Elementary math instructor Shannon Larsen (photo by Kris Kelley)

With UMF at the helm, Maine will be joining one of the few states in the US to offer an organized Math Coaching Program for K-8 teachers starting this spring. The two year professional development program developed in part by UMF Outreach is not considered a certificate program, “coaching candidates” who complete it will be equipped with the skills to act as math coaches in their district.

“Our first cohort will start in June of this year,” said Sandra MacArthur, Program Director and Head of UMF Outreach. The three courses comprising the program will be presented in a “blended model of delivery,” MacArthur stated, going on to explain that about 30% of the class is in person with the other 70% available online.

In addition to the three courses, which are to be held here at UMF, there will be a 2-day summer institute each year for administrative planning and background information. Math coaches will also be visiting the coaching candidates throughout the year to work with them in their own classrooms.

So the question begs; what exactly is a math coach? Elementary Math Instructor Shannon Larsen described a math coach as “embedded professional development.” Rather than leaving school for a conference or attending a summer event, she explained, a math coach will come to the teacher to provide that professional development right in the classroom.

“So they might help you plan a lesson, they might teach it with you, they might watch you teach and give you feedback,” said Larsen. “They’re working with you directly related to things you’re working on in your classroom.”

According to Larsen and MacArthur, there are math coaches in Maine already but they get their training piecemeal. To the best of Larsen’s knowledge, the state has never had an organized training program for math coaches to get professional development and network with others who do similar work.

It was superintendent Richard Colpitts from the Oxford Hills area who first came to MacArthur with the idea in the spring of 2013. “He said he had this great idea,” she explained, “I agreed with him because my background is also as a superintendent and I know that there’s a need out there.”

According to MacArthur, ranked nationally Maine’s math proficiency scores have remained somewhere between 40%-45% for some time. “They’ve been pretty stable for a number of years now without any real fluctuation so we were looking for something different to try to improve those math scores for students throughout Maine,” said MacArthur.

Instructor of Special Education Karen Smith, although not connected to the project, has research experience in math pedagogy. She suggested that the introduction of common core standards has also created a need for both new and veteran teachers to seek professional development opportunities. “I would say the change in the standards to the common core, math standards, has increased the level of anxiety among several educators that I have anecdotally spoken with,” said Smith. “Having a knowledgeable coach that is available to provide embedded professional development for these teachers is much needed.”

While Smith supported the efforts of math coaching initiatives she acknowledged that they have their cons as well pros. “One thing that I’ve witnessed in other types of coaching models is sometimes there’s a double edged sword,” explained Smith. “You have the better quality teacher that would go into these positions, which is great, it’s a benefit, for helping to provide that professional development for other teachers, but then it pulls a good teacher out of the classroom.”

While Larsen hopes that coaching candidates will be able to fully realize their positions as coaches after completing the program she acknowledged that the reality is some districts may not be able to afford to release a teacher from the classroom to coach full time.

Potential challenges aside, both MacArthur and Larsen appeared eager to get started and optimistic about the initiative’s future. Speculating about the longevity of the program MacArthur said, “It will depend on the success of the first cohort, if we do it well and build our reputation, it should be a very successful program.”