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Answering the call for exceptional math teachers

What are the greatest challenges facing North Carolina in the 21st century—and how can the public university system respond?

That was the question posed to thousands of citizens in 2007 by the University of North Carolina Tomorrow Initiative. Clearly, the future of public education was on the minds of many.

Residents particularly voiced concern about the shortage of science and math teachers in the state’s public schools. As a result, UNC Tomorrow leaders have challenged UNC institutions to make teacher preparation a priority.

UNC Asheville is meeting one part of this important challenge: producing exceptional math teachers.

Quite simply, the study found that our math teachers are the crème de la crème

A recent study by the Carolina Institute for Public Policy found that UNC Asheville graduates outperform all of their colleagues at teaching high school math. The report shows the undeniable link between the effectiveness of teachers and how well students do in class. Researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University compared UNC system-trained teachers with their peers from out-of-state and private colleges, focusing on teachers with 10 or fewer years of experience.

“Quite simply, the study found that our math teachers are the crème de la crème,” said Nancy Ruppert, UNC Asheville math licensure coordinator.

One reason for this success is UNC Asheville’s unique approach to educating teachers. Students choose a field of interest—from math to art—and pursue a major in that subject area as well as a teaching license. It is the only institution in the state in which students focus on the field they will teach. Ruppert believes that UNC Asheville’s liberal arts education also gives students a leg up in their careers as teachers.

Loren Hord ’05 teaches math at T.C. Roberson High School in Buncombe County. In the beginning, he wasn’t totally convinced about UNC Asheville’s unique approach. But after five years in the classroom, he’s had a change of heart.

“At the time, I thought the liberal arts aspect of the school made me a weaker math student,” he said. “As I grew older and matured as a teacher, I saw that I had a more well-rounded education. I could relate to and communicate with people better. It was a situation where UNC Asheville knew what was best for me better than I did.”

Future math teachers spend a lot of time taking classes in UNC Asheville’s Mathematics Department. And that’s a good thing. The department, one of the biggest on campus, is dedicated to helping prepare students for the classroom. In fact, the department’s 14 faculty members serve as excellent role models.

“Education professors are naturally involved in local schools. But here at UNC Asheville, the Mathematics professors are also reaching out, doing service projects and participating with their college students in activities that involve kids,” said Ruppert. “That models to our students what good teachers do.”

UNC Asheville students also take to the classroom early. They are strongly encouraged to tutor, mentor and volunteer in schools long before their required senior year stint at student teaching.

While Ruppert acknowledges that math is sometimes seen as a dreaded subject by students, she agrees with the UNC Tomorrow Initiative on its importance to the future of the state.

“We need very strong math teachers at all levels. If students can learn to reason and problem-solve, they are going to be better citizens in a global society that will continue to emphasize critical thinking skills,” Ruppert said.

Hord concurs. “Math is important because it is universal; it permeates every culture, race, religion, social class and time period. It is ancient, but it drives the technology of the future.”

For more about UNC Tomorrow, visit northcarolina.edu/nctomorrow

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