SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Calif. — Kyle Ferreira Van Leer is an 8th-grade math teacher in the San Juan Unified School District at Starr King and he's ABC10's Teacher of the Month for January 2021.
Van Leer has been teaching for six years, but established educators who've visited his classroom say, they learn more and more every time they see him in action. Many feel it's his approach that sets him apart.
"Kids come into math with either really good experiences or really bad experiences. For most kids, it's yes, I love math or I hate math and I hate you as a result," Van Leer said.
This is a challenge he is taking head-on and he's passing with flying colors.
ABC10 asked Van Leer a few questions to get a better understanding of his career in teaching young students.
Q: How long have you been teaching?
I have been teaching for six years. I taught for three years in Chelsea, Mass. After a brief hiatus where I went to pastry school in New York City, I moved with my husband to Sacramento, where I have been teaching for the past three years (well, two and a half years) at Starr King K-8 as a 7th and 8th-grade lead math teacher. I also am the director for our school musicals!
Q: Who was your favorite teacher growing up?
My favorite teacher growing up was my high school calculus teacher, Mrs. Mills. I knew her before 11th grade, as she was the coach of the math team (which totally was not social suicide) and she was so engaging and ensured that we were always understanding not only why the math worked the way it did, but that we were seeing the beauty of mathematics. I even had the amazing opportunity to co-teach a calculus class my senior year with her, which helped me realize even more that teaching was going to be my path. To this day, I still keep in touch with Mrs. Mills!
Q: What's your favorite student success story?
For me, the best success stories are those moments when students see the joy of mathematics and they finally feel successful in math class. By the time students get to 7th grade, they often have had one of two potential experiences in math: either they are “math people” or they are not. This means that I, as a math teacher, have to fight the mindset that a student is unable to “do math,” because they have it in their minds that if they don’t know their multiplication facts or they struggle with adding fractions, they can’t “do math.” However, math is messy and all about exploration. I try to help my students realize that everyone is capable of doing math. We all have the potential to ask questions about a problem, to connect it to what we know and have learned, and to make and learn from mistakes. It may require us to use the tools at our disposal (a calculator or a graphing software), but those are what people use in the “real world.” Mathematics was not created because people used an algorithm that they got from a textbook -- it was developed through many errors and mistakes, that uncovered some amazing truths. So when a student enters my classroom asking what problem we are going to solve that day, smiling because they know they get to be a mathematician, then I know I’ve done my job.
Q: What advice do you have for the future teachers of America?
As a math teacher, my advice is for future teachers to try out things in a way that may be different. It could be different from the textbook or the way that you learned how to do it. I encourage you to do what we expect of students -- try out something and make a mistake. I am always modifying the ways in which I teach things -- if I looked back at my curriculum from year one to now, it would be completely different. It’s okay if a lesson completely bombs, because you can learn what not to do next time. And one messy lesson is not going to ruin a student -- you always have the opportunity to come in, say that it was a mess (be honest with the kids -- they are truth detectors), and try something different! If we want students to struggle productively in our classroom, we need to model that ourselves.
For those working in math spaces, in particular, please let students explore and find their own solutions. Find connections between different topics and different procedures -- these connections are what make math beautiful and fun!
Finally, I want to make sure that all teachers are constantly thinking about their position within the classroom. Think about the fact that traditionally you hold a position of power in the space -- how can you disseminate that to your students, giving them some more heavy lifting and authority? Are the structures within your classroom promoting anti-racist practices or not? Think about the demographics of your student population and the questions you are asking of them. Consider their background knowledge and their realities. We have to always be reflecting on our positionality in order to make sure that we are creating spaces for our students to thrive, not spaces where they are oppressed or their ideas and creativity are dampened.
Q: What advice do you have for parents?
My advice for families, similar to teachers, is to encourage math play! There are so many wonderful ways that you can engage with mathematics with your students. Math is messy! Make up a pattern and see how it grows. Find a fun thinking problem online and work on it with your learner. Ask your child to show you the cool problem they were working on in class. We have to make sure that we cut out the words “I’m not a math person” from our vocabulary! Students listen, and if they hear those words, they think it’s okay for them to fall into that category. But all students are mathematicians -- just start with what do you notice and what do you wonder?
Congratulations again to our January 2021 Teacher of the Month, Kyle Ferreira Van Leer!