Math Leadership Tip: Crazy Math Badges.

8 years ago I made something on a whim that turned out to be one of the best mathematics professional development (PD) decisions I have ever made. E.V.E.R…. I love when life gives you positive unintended consequences you never planned for.  This is the story of one of those times.IMG_2846

8 years ago I took a job as the secondary math lead for Minneapolis Public Schools.  8 years ago I also purchased a really really nice laminator. (I LOVE my laminator).  Some people have hobbies like knitting and broomball (google it – it’s a MN thing).  Not me.   I make silly geeky mathy things.  My homemade Christmas cards are a thing of beauty, but that is an entirely different post that requires me to make videos.

As I started my job at the district one of my goals was to build community with the 200 or so secondary math teachers.  One way I did this was to visit every new math teacher in their classrooms (10-30/year) on the first day school to welcome them with a gift (coffee cards, words of advice from MPS teachers…etc).  I decided that new teachers should also have a mathy something to wear with their Minneapolis School ID everyday.  I also decided I would use this laminated badge to remind them of one of the themes of the PD we would engage in during the school year.  I went through several prototypes, but during that first year I gave out one of these laminated badges to nearly every one of the 200 teachers I would be working with.

After giving these badges out, I started wearing one of my own around my districts main office.  In some ways I forgot about the badges – that was until people started asking me about them.  People would ask me about the ‘mathy’ redo of the word Minneapolis.  Sometimes the questions I had put on the back would show and they would ask me about this.  All these queries helped me develop an elevator message about what Minneapolis valued in mathematics.  Leaders in my district started asking me for their own badge.  Teachers started emailing asking for more badges for others in their building….so I kept making more.

The next year I gave out new & improved badges to new teachers.  I also kept getting additional requests from teachers, principals, coaches, and leaders from around the district for more.  In fact, with zero advertising, for the last 8 years I’ve continue to receive requests for these badges monthly if not weekly.  I now don’t leave home without several in my school bag to give out when asked.  Year 2 I put together a 1-pager to go along with the badge that looked something like this:what up mps badge

notice patterns

So here is how most of my conversations go when I get asked about the badge around my neck.  This is the same conversation I have whether asked by students, parents (they ask all the time about my badge), the random person at the coffee shop, or my school districts superintendent…

  • Parent:  I like your mathy badge.
  • Me:  Thanks.  I wear it to remind me that math is everywhere and what I want to do more of in my classroom.
  • Parent:  I was never good at math, but I love how passionate you are.
  • Me:  My goal is to create students who will never say that in their adulthood because they know math is simply the study of patterns and patterns are everywhere.  Mathematicians notice patterns – did you know everyone has that ability from birth?.. Mathematicians describe what they notice and then they generalize.  Everyday in my classroom I work to create experiences where students can practice noticing, describing and generalizing.  The questions on the back of this card are questions that anyone can ask – including you – to assure your student has daily practice with this – here I will show you quick….(I then show them something and ask “What do you notice?”….)

The elevator message I give changes a bit based on who I am delivering it to and my mood and so many other factors – but I often get back from those I’ve talked to “Wow, I’ve not thought about math that way”.

3 years ago I returned to the classroom full time at a middle school named Ramsey.  When I returned, I redid the tag to match my new schools colors.  1 year ago I transferred to South High School and did the same thing.  Several years ago I also made a version of theIMG_2849 badge for a presentation I did for my state association.  I’ve probably given out 1000 badges over the last 8 years.  I see tons of people wearing them.  I continually meet people that tell me that they have loved the questions on the back of the badge and that they try and build lessons everyday to match these questions.  Seriously – I’ve never done anything in my career that has such long lasting impact on so many people of all types.  I made these for math teachers, but my best conversations around the badges have been with principals – empowering with a simple message about math and what to look for in the classrooms they observe.  I’ve also had multiple powerful conversations with parents.  All from a small badge I wear mindlessly most days around my neck.

I also use the geeky mathy takes on my schools names to brand everything I do.  This year I made signs for the doors of all 16 teachers at my school.  I make note-cards/postcards I run off on card-stock.  Doing this has always resulted in on math teachers in my school asking about it and frankly a bit jealous.  Again, this gives me another chance to give my elevator message about math.  These little badges have allowed me a non threatening vehicle to tell those that ask about what I believe good math instruction looks like…and how they too can do the same thing in their sphere of influence.

As a going away gift for my student teacher this year I made badges for her new school in the fall.  I made her a set of notecards with her schools mathy logo and also gave her electronic files of everything so she could make other things for her new school.

Mathified Cook County      Cook County math card     cook county badge  

You may notice that the back of the 2016-17 cards went through a change.  I have long wanted something on my badge that I can can use to ask the questions on my cards…so I added a ‘which one doesn’t belong’ question to the back.  It also highlights my love of using color intentionally.  If you’ve read blog you know my great LOVE of ‘What do you notice?’ and ‘What do you wonder?’ from the Annie Fetter & The Math Forumn.  If you have not watched her 5 minute video yet about these questions…do it NOW.  Here is the link.  We will see if I like this new badge as much as I love my old badges.

I’ve also made a MTBoS badge that I am happy to give to anyone who wants one at Twitter Math Camp in a few weeks.  If you are a Minneapolis, Ramsey, South or Minnesota teacher or leader that wants a badge – let me know and I will give you one the next time I see you (or I am happy to put it in school mail to you).

01 mtbos

If you have an idea of how I can improve my badges  – please share.  I am always looking for ways to improve the badges.  Email me at saravdw@gmail.com or tweet me or comment below.

I will close this post with a challenge to you.  What are your core values as a math teacher?  How can you do something – like a badge you wear everyday – so that you have a chance to share an elevator message about your core values in your math classroom?  Do you even have an elevator message if asked?  If not, I urge you to develop one.  Classroom teachers are the ones that have the power to change the culture of math in our nation.  We are the leaders.  Really.  Others think they are and have titles that say they are – but the most powerful voices for changing how math are viewed are us – the classroom math teachers.  Embrace this power and be ready when asked to speak with a message about the learning of math.  Change happens one person at a time.  If you don’t have any ideas on how to make this happen – try a geeky math badge.

I am attaching below pdf and word copies of what I’ve made.  Use them as you like.  My originals are Microsoft Publisher files you are welcome to look at HERE and HERE (this is the messy one I use to make letters).

UPDATE 10.22.17:  The amazing Jessica Strom (you need to click the link and follow her on twitter).  from my great state of MN put together an entire alphabet in Microsoft Publisher that you can use.  You can find her document HERE.  I think she may also put this in word soon, if she does I will post it here. 

Kim McKee also made an entire alphabet you can find HERE. (inspired by Sarah Carter’s post linked to mine).



  1.  I’ve been asked several times where I got my laminator and laminating supplies from.  Answer:  I order them online from www.laminator.com (there are a lot of other sites out there that sell similar things).  My laminator was expensive – I bought it 10+ years ago (so I don’t remember the cost) – and use it frequently and it works great to this day.  It was worth the investment.  It only does jobs up to the size of 8.5 x 11 inches using laminating pouches that I order at this LINK.  The ones I used for the badges are called ‘luggage tags with hole on short size’.  I love the 10 ml thickness – but I am sure you could order others.  laminating pouch
  2.  I’ve heard from tons of people telling me they plan to create their own math badges. I love the enthusiasm.  Here are some images that have already been created – Thanks for sharing.

From Greta Bergman


From Olivia Rose

south dakota

From Sahar Khatri @KhatriMath

Thank you to Sarah Carter @mathequalslove for blogging about this post and being inspired to create a downloadable WELCOME poster at her blog.  (you sent tons of people my way who I am sure have not visited me before) Enjoy!

welcome poster

I love this one from Elizabeth Barwick @bethbarwick.  Really – you all are outdoing me for sure.  I am going to have to step up my game.

Elizabeth Barwick @bethbarwick

Here is one I made spring 2017 for my student teacher, Manju Connelley, for her new school.


Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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