When Joanna Burt-Kinderman welcomed Matthew Campbell to Pocahontas County in 2017, Campbell sat in on the best math classes he’d ever seen.

“There was something real about these classes,” said Campbell, an associate professor of mathematics education and associate director of teacher education at the School of Education  within the College of Applied Human Sciences. “Teachers were using interesting tasks and routines to get students thinking and talking. And students were thinking and talking. It happened in different ways across classrooms, but in every case students were discussing math.”

Matthew Campbell

Campbell remembers feeling astonished by what he experienced “early one fall morning, in a  place where for the first time in years I was without a cell signal for 36 hours. It felt like it all happened in an organic, grassroots way, although of course it required Joanna’s special vision a nd skill set.”

Burt-Kinderman, an instructional coach for the Pocahontas County school district, earned her master's degree from WVU in 2015 with a thesis on cooperative learning in rural math classrooms. She and Campbell had connected then, and on his trip to Pocahontas County, she voiced her conviction that the vitality of the learning he’d witnessed had everything to do with the fact that teachers had led the changemaking that happened in their teaching practices. As they talked, they realized they were equally committed to enabling teachers to exercise leadership from within the classroom.

“Too often, when teachers get ‘good’ at their craft, they leave the classroom and become administrators,” Burt-Kinderman said. “It’s currently the only way to advance in your education career. We’re here to change that.”

Joanna Burt-Kinderman

She added, “The notion that teachers are better equipped to improve teaching and learning than someone who’s no longer teaching shouldn’t be remarkable. Folks who are ready and willing to uplift themselves and others should have a way to advance their careers without leaving the classroom.”

The result of Burt-Kinderman and Campbell’s belief that teachers should be their own experts and leaders was M3T, the Mountaineer Mathematics Master Teachers program, a statewide coalition of math teachers who launch and test collaborative solutions to shared problems, growing as professionals and leading other teachers through the problem-solving process.

M3T was launched with capacity-building funding from the National Science Foundation in 2018. In 2019, the Benedum Foundation funded a pilot project with educators from six counties; in 2020, Campbell and Burt-Kinderman led a team that received a six-year, $3 million grant from the NSF’s Noyce Program, with additional funding from the West Virginia Department of Education, to fund a mathematics teacher leadership program statewide.

The program funds three cohorts of M3T fellows — math teachers from grades 6-12 receiving five-year fellowships with yearly $10,000 stipends. Every fellow works within their district to form “local improvement teams” of math teachers who collaborate with the fellow on identifying and solving common issues. M3T now has fellows and improvement teams in about half of West Virginia’s school districts.

A big part of the program is about working together on “bugs.”

Campbell said, “Often if I ask a teacher what’s ‘bugging’ them with a student or a lesson, they hone in on things that seem like bugs but are just symptoms. Or they talk about things that are part of the problem but that teachers can’t control.

Our process to dig deep, focus on things we can control, listen to how a big group of people is talking in different ways about what turns out to be the same problem.

— Matthew Campbell

There are many routes to better teaching and learning, but research into best practices often isn’t reflected in teachers’ real practices. Burt-Kinderman thinks that’s the result of “coming to teachers with a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said.

“We need to start with the part of teaching and learning that teachers themselves are hungry to fix. That’s why our focus is on what bugs teachers. Teachers are troubled by content students aren’t mastering, but they’re also bothered by barriers to students engaging with math.”

Once a common bug or barrier is identified, teachers brainstorm solutions, some of which they’ll test in classrooms, collecting student data as they go. Some teachers have tried moving desks to get students to work together, offering sample “sentence starters” to help students start talking, and making sure classrooms have no “invisible kids.” Others have experimented with challenging students not to find the correct answer to a math problem, but to evaluate two different solutions and figure out which is right and how the one that’s wrong went sideways.

Last spring, Burt-Kinderman and Campbell traveled with Logan County teacher Janet Hanshaw to present M3T’s approach and results at the Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Teaching. There, Hanshaw “stole the show,” Campbell said. She was invited to return the following year and to appear on a podcast.

“This is a teacher who after more than 30 years in the classroom never saw herself as a leader, never even saw how she might collaborate productively with other teachers down the hall,” Campbell said. “She now realizes she has a voice as a professional and a leader, and one she has showcased on some big stages. That happened because this work positions teachers as having voices worth hearing, voices worth leading.”

He believes that when teachers come to see themselves as leaders, they won’t leave the teaching profession. Schools retain teachers when they “center teachers and lift up their voices,” he said.

We’re using the platform of M3T to uplift the coolness that is here in West Virginia — not to create it. There are pockets of brilliance in our hollers, and M3T’s fellows are taking this opportunity and leveraging it in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

— Joanna Burt-Kinderman

Read two teachers' firsthand classroom experiences.