The Journey to 100,000 Excellent STEM Teachers

Posted by Melissa Moritz, Deputy Director of STEM, US Department of Education

This past week, Secretary Duncan highlighted the critical role of educators in “leading efforts to transform students’ lives.” As the Deputy Director of STEM here at the Department of Education, part of my job is to ensure we’re doing all we can to support educators, particularly those teaching in the critical fields of science, technology, engineering and math. In classrooms throughout the country, outstanding teachers are preparing students in these subject areas, giving them the support and tools they need to meaningfully contribute to their schools, communities and workplaces. We want all kids to have classrooms like that every year and to make that happen, we need more of these teachers.

That’s why the President set a goal of preparing 100,000 new STEM teachers in the next 10 years, and why more than 200 organizations have come together to create 100Kin10. This network has risen to the challenge to recruit, prepare and retain excellent STEM educators, and they are focused on giving even more students access to the foundational skills they need in these fields. On October 28th, the White House will bring this group together to discuss their continued collaboration towards the President’s ambitious goal.

The Department of Education is proud to support, through grants like Investing in Innovation (i3) and Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED), the work of a number of 100Kin10 partner organizations. Among them is The New Teacher Project (TNTP), a recipient of a 2010 i3 Validation grant for $20 million, as well as a 2015 SEED grant for $14 million. Through these grants, TNTP has been able to expand its proven approach to preparing excellent educators to serve in high-need communities throughout the country. In honor of this week’s convening, and the work of 100Kin10, I’m excited to share with you the story of one of these teachers, Gionni Carr.

The Dream Job: Middle School Math Teacher

By Gionni Carr

I love teaching math to 6th graders, but it’s a little ironic this is my job.

While I love the subject now, and have seen my students make great gains, I didn’t pay much attention in math class when I was a kid. I was a wiggly boy who was really into music and was often chasing a beat in my head or drumming on my desk. Sitting still and doing worksheets was hard and uninspiring. As a result, I fell behind and had to catch up in summer school.

Eventually I got my act together, learned I liked math, and graduated from the University of Memphis with a business degree and a dream of making it in the music industry. While working toward that, I filled in as a substitute teacher and found I really connected with children and had a knack for helping them learn. To my surprise, the principal at the school suggested I consider becoming a full-time teacher. She told me about TNTP, and — at her urging — I checked out the nonprofit, which I learned had a great reputation and earned an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education — an award given to organizations with a track record of helping students progress.

I applied to TNTP’s Teaching Fellows program three years ago and fell for the work and the kids. I spent my first year in the program leading my own classes. But I wasn’t really alone. My TNTP coach, Nick Kochmanski, was with me every step of the way. He taught me everything there was to know about designing assessments, reviewing data, asking good questions, and writing great lesson plans. And, just as important, he was always there with a kind word or high five when I needed it.

I thought of Nick recently when I was honored with a Nashville Blue Ribbon Teacher Award for the relationships I’ve fostered with my students. Without a doubt it was Nick who, leading by example that year, showed me what it really means to invest in people, particularly those you’re charged with teaching.

Despite my deep gratitude to Nick, I didn’t choose to take him to the ceremony, and somehow, I think he’d be okay with that.

Instead, the young lady who came with me was a student of mine that first year of teaching. Selena is a sweet, bright girl who broke down crying after class one day, saying she would never be good at math. I handed her a Kleenex and told her what I know to be true — there is no such thing as, “I can’t do math.”

“Look,” I told her, “I was an awful math student for years. My goal is to make sure you’re a way better math student than I was at your age and that you leave my class loving math as much as I do today.”

By connecting with her and reminding her about her capacity to learn, it was like a light bulb went off in her head. After that, Selena worked hard and went from failing my quizzes and exams to coming in for extra help, believing in herself, and earning A’s.

As a teacher, you’re supposed to build up your students so they can be successful. I learned that from Nick. But Selena really brought that lesson to life.

When I became a teacher, I promised myself I’d make math fun and would meet every student where he or she was. That’s why now and again I get those quizzical looks from administrators who want to know why Ludacris is playing in my classroom. I then have to explain that it’s an attention grabber before rolling out a fractions lesson. And sometimes, I can still be found drumming on my desk.

Gionni Carr currently teaches 6th-grade math at STEM Prep Academy in Nashville. He previously taught 6th-grade math and science at Margaret Allen Middle School in Nashville. Gionni is a graduate of the TNTP Teaching Fellows program.