Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to learn from an exceptional teacher recognizes the lasting impact the experience can have. But filling classrooms with powerful educators is about more than just getting them in the room; it is about giving them opportunities to grow and reasons to stay. Math for America (MfA) hopes not just to help retain teachers, but also increase professional satisfaction for those in the classroom. Since its creation in 2004, it has used its fellowship program to build a community of ~1,000 teachers. While the fellowships provide access to valuable financial support and courses, members say that becoming part of a community with a common professional identity and shared pursuit of excellence is what really stands out.

Math for America is a fellowship program that offers renewable, four-year fellowships to NYC teachers (though it is advocating for programs around the country). Brian Palacios, now an MfA Master Teacher in his 5th fellowship year, was hesitant to apply at first. But after years of encouragement from his colleagues, Palacios is now adamant that the role MfA has played in his professional life would be hard to overstate. After talking about the details of the program itself, the courses he had access to, the people he had met, Palacios wanted to step back and make sure he talked about what it meant to him. “It’s just so important and vital,” Palacios said. “It’s such an important part of our careers and our practice. It just … it means a lot.” Our conversation made me understand why Megan Roberts, Executive Director for MfA, had been so adamant that I talk to one of their teachers as well.

Both Palacios and Roberts mentioned that taking part in MfA programs lets teachers make certain assumptions about the other people in the room. Unlike other professional development settings, application requirements mean that teachers interacting at an MfA function can often assume a few things about the person they are speaking to: That person is also a teacher, they have been teaching for at least five years, and they want to be there. “It raises the level of conversation in the room.” said Roberts. “It’s not that they all agree – they don’t. But there can be a more sophisticated level of dissent.” For Palacios, the difference has more to do with the language and tools of introspection that MfA teachers all share and use when they communicate.

Palacios said that MfA has certainly played a role in how he views his profession, and surveys suggest that he is not alone. When asked if MfA interactions had influenced them to stay in the classroom, 91% of respondents said yes. Ninety-three percent said they took at least one course that offered them a practice that changed the way they teach, and 87% said that a course impacted the way they understand their students.

Roberts was proud to describe MfA as “of teachers, by teachers, and on behalf of teachers.” That approach has shaped the catalog of courses made available each year, first surveying teachers about the content and skills they would like to learn, and then reaching out to find experts (either within their own ranks or from elsewhere) capable of leading those sessions. MfA believes it is important to provide chances for leadership for teachers that may not have the opportunity, or the confidence, to do so in their own school setting. After taking a course about using video in the classroom, Palacios wanted to run the workshop for teachers at his own school. MfA not only supported him, but loaned him all of the equipment to do so. For him, it was a standout moment of trust and leadership.

That trust also played a huge role in the creation of the Summer Think conference, now in its second year. Palacios had used some of his fellowship funds to attend a conference and came back wishing that MfA could host its own. Roberts said that MfA had generally limited all of its programming to the school year, understanding how precious summer months are to the teaching community. But based on their experiences at other conferences, MfA teachers wanted a chance to take what they did at MfA in the evenings for two hours at a time during the school year and really dive in. They wanted the opportunity to spend a few days exploring a topic with their colleagues when they didn’t all have grading and classes waiting for them. Though MfA provided financial and logistical support, the planning committee was ultimately made of up teachers. The first year was popular enough to have a waiting list and quickly led to a second year.

This year’s Summer Think focused on the theme of “Identify Your Why,” and gave teachers a chance to really engage with why they do what they do. Palacios, who served on the planning committee for both conferences, said that the theme for the second year arose naturally out of feedback from the first. Just like the course catalog through the year, sessions were solicited through an open call and organized into a series of “Deep Dives” and “Splash Sessions.” The deep dives spread over the three days and let the participants invest time in a subject that really mattered to them.

Palacios felt empowered by the leadership role he got to take on with the Summer Think, contrasting it with his experiences before joining MfA. “I don’t think I felt like I was ever trusted in a significant way before that point, and I felt myself hitting a wall,” Palacios said. But as rewarding as that experience with the planning committee has been, he hopes he isn’t on the next one. “I never would have thought about having the opportunity to plan a conference, but I don’t want to hog the experience.” Palacios said. “Someone else should get to do that; they should get their chance to make it even better.”]

About MfA:“MƒA was founded in New York City by Jim Simons, Founder and Chairman of Renaissance Technologies, who along with his wife, Marilyn Simons, also founded the Simons’ Foundation, which has a mission to advance frontiers in mathematics research and the basic sciences. The Simons Foundation provides a substantial portion of funding for MƒA, and Jim Simons serves as the Chair of the MƒA Board.” – Math for America website.