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Fresno State Provides Incentives for Math Teachers

Jul 23, 2019 11:00AM ● By Melissa Mendonca

Follow the Path

August 2019
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photo by Cary Edmondson

Elijah Clark was a senior at Caruthers High School when he realized he wanted to be a math teacher. “I was tutoring one of my classmates during one of my math classes and they explained to me that they didn’t like math, they hated math,” says the 22-year-old Fresno State math major. “The real reason they didn’t like math was because they had a bad experience with a teacher.”

Clark, on the other hand, enjoyed his math teachers, Bryan Sheldon and Baljit Gill, and wants it to be that way for everyone. “My mentality is that I don’t want anyone to have a bad experience with a teacher,” he says. Fortunately, he’s entered Fresno State as a transfer student from Reedley Community College at a time when the university is expanding its supports and resources to potential math teachers.

“In the Central Valley there is a huge teacher shortage,” says Dr. Rajee Amarasinghe, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics at Fresno State. “All the teachers we are producing now are not making a dent in the teacher shortage and what we need.” 

In a regular progression of study, a teacher would spend four years in an undergraduate program and then an additional year and a half in a teacher credential program. This added time is unappealing to those wanting to get out in the workforce, especially when the field of engineering sends a siren call to math majors after just four years. To address the severe shortage of math teachers, something had to change.

“We got together with our School of Education folks, and our math faculty and our teacher education faculty,” says Amarasinghe. “We creatively looked at some of the classes.” By combining courses with similar content that were required in undergraduate and credential programs, the team developed an integrated credential program that enhances supports to potential math teachers while getting them through in four years. 

For Clark, this means a paid position as an instructional student aide where he is mentored through teaching techniques while helping fellow students. “Now that I have students, it helps me see what kind of teacher I’d like to be,” he says. It’s no small thing that he’s paid, as well. “That helps me be able to eat every day and to drive to school,” he adds.

Clark has attended the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in San Diego, where he learned from teachers from across the globe. “Out of the whole year, that was the highlight,” he says. “I learned to teach different types of students different ways of learning math.”

The efforts of Fresno State were recently increased by a five-year, $1.4 million award from the National Science Foundation to provide scholarships to math majors in the integrated credential program. Clark will be one of the first recipients of a $10,000 award to continue his studies. The Noyce Teacher Scholarship will provide 44 junior and senior math majors $10,000 awards each year over five years. “It’s a financial incentive to think about becoming a future teacher,” says Amarasinghe.

There’s a hurdle beyond finances that the university is also addressing, and that is the fundamental way that young people experience math. “Often high school students see math very traditionally. They don’t see the beauty of math,” says Amarasinghe. “Only a handful of students want to be math majors because they think it’s too hard. It doesn’t have to be.”

To change the perception, he is sending teams out to work with high-achieving math students. “We do our outreach in a very different way,” he says. “We come up with different activities that show the application of math in real life. They are much more practical and fun. It’s much more appealing to them.” The teams go to area high schools and community colleges to attract students to Fresno State.

While Amarasinghe recognizes that these efforts are still small in regards to teacher needs in the state, he’s optimistic about developing an approach that can be replicated. “We are showing a path,” he says. “If we are successful in this, the others can follow.” There are 23 campuses in the California State University system, and early funding for the integrated math teacher training program was provided by the CSU Chancellors Office.

For a student like Clark, the financial and academic support mean he can stay in the rural areas of the Fresno area to follow in the footsteps of his parents and aunt who have modeled meaningful careers as educators. “I want to give these students an opportunity they’ve never seen before,” he says. “This is like home out here for me. Sometimes we’re overlooked because we’re further from the city.” 

Soon, the area just may have one of the most well-trained and innovative math teachers in the state. •

Fresno State Department of Mathematics