My personal math mentors.

A week ago Annie Perkins, a phenomenal 4th-year math teacher/leader in my district, started a blog & wrote a post titled “An Ode to Sara Van Der Werf & the Power of Building Each Other Up”.  In her post she says the following about me Holy crap, this woman is terrifying!” (her first impression), “Sara is bigger than life, with a booming voice and message that does not allow one to give her anything less than 100% undivided attention.”, Wait a second, maybe she’s a genius…Everything she was said was amazing.”

I am a 25 year veteran who sees myself as like any of you.  I am a math teacher who is trying my best with my students and my peers.  I am pretty passionate about building a community of math teachers in Minnesota.  I joined twitter and the #MTBoS community several years back because it was another way to do this.  I also am passionate about building leaders.

Annie, who wrote these words about me, is just one of several math teachers I work to encourage or build into leaders.  Though I’ve been in leadership for many years now and am our current state president, I forget all the time that people may be intimidated to meet me.  A couple of years ago I started seeing a difference in how some math educators responded to me.  Young math teachers would approach me at math conferences and shyly ask to have their picture taken with me.  (In my head I am screaming ‘this is crazy, I am just like them’.)

Here is what Annie said in her blog post about meeting me the first time. “So when she was done, I walked right up to her and said some words. I don’t remember what they were because inside my head I was screaming in terror.”  She goes on to say the same thing about meeting Megan Schmidt. (@Veganmathbeagle ) – who by the way in the state of MN, people come up to me all the time and say “I just met ‘veganmathbeagle’ or ‘trianglemathcsd’ in an almost fan girl frenzy”. Megan and Christophers (and some others are part of the powerhouse group of math leaders we have in MN.

I don’t know what goes through the heads of other leaders in math education, but I suspect it is similar to what goes through my head.  I intellectually get that my years of experience and the fact that I put myself out there building community in math teachers and speak loudly (both literally and with passion) about mathematics education in the state of MN means there are teachers in their first 15 years who look up to me.  Emotionally I am in the room with all these people and I see myself as the same as everyone else.  I intellectually know I am a leader.  (In the last few years I’ve been able to say it more often without apologizing) But emotionally I see myself as a learner and a teacher – not a leader.

It makes me smile that others would be intimidated to walk up and talk to me or assume I don’t know them if we’ve met….BUT then I remember how I felt around my mentors when I was in my first 15 years of teaching and I start to get it.  I remember the first time I realized my Superintendent knew my name (I work in a really big district) in my 5th year of teaching.  She approached me and said a few words to me and I like most of you had felt invisible to her.  She knew me and I became a bigger fan of hers that day.

isaac newtonMy math heros…My math giants….My personal math mentors existed before google and the internet.  The people who inspired me early in my career – most of you will know little about because their history lives in me and 20 other people in my district (of 200 math teachers) with more seniority than I do.  The vast majority of math teachers in my district and state do not know the names of my mentors.  There greatness shone in my life 20 or 25 years ago.  I stand on their shoulders.

So, today I am committing myself to both record their names & to blog about each of them over the following year so you know who they are and their leadership is honored and remembered.  I am limiting this list to only math mentors. (I could name so many other people)  Here is my list in this post I will tell you more about one name who is on my blog already in my most popular post.   I will talk about the rest of the people on this list in future blog posts.  All but one are from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Metro area.



5x5 gameBy a landslide the most popular post on my 8 month old blog is one inspired by Jane Kostik.  Jane taught me this game to me during student teaching or my first year. The post of the game she taught me has thousands and thousands and thousands of views  – more views than any other post on my blog by a factor of 20.  Many, many have contacted me thank me for the 5×5 grid game. Through all of you who’ve viewed it and used it, Jane Kostik influence lives on.

Jane Kostik was my cooperating teacher during student teaching at Patrick kostikHenry High School in north Minneapolis.  At the time Henry was on the verge of closing.  Many considered our urban HS the worst in the city if not the state. We had around 650 students in our 9-12 school  I was hired to work at this school a week after student teaching (really no one else wanted to work there so they hired my 22 year old naive self) and worked there with Jane for 13 years. Jane retired maybe 5 or 9 years after I left from Henry.  When she retired I was leading math for MPLS and I asked her if she saw this in me when I was 22.  She quietly shook her head ‘no’.  Jane saw what most of you don’t believe.  I was a quiet, introverted teacher when I started.

Here is why Jane is great.  Jane, along with about 8 other teachers saved Henry High School.  These teachers literally saved the school.   They decided that the teachers could turn the school around. They made this decision a year or two before I began and mentored me and my peers.  We were a school of 1/4 committed experienced teachers (10-20 years into their careers) and a 1/2 full of newbies including myself (there is another 1/4, but I am focusing on Jane Kostik’s 1/4 and my 1/2).  When I left Henry – Henry was the preferred HS on the north side.  We had 1500 students.  We had literally more than doubled in size.  Last year, Henry (still high poverty) was named a Celebration School by our state.  The math teachers there learned from Jane and the other group of amazing mentors we had and have continued on the tradition of excellence for urban students 25 years later. Students of color and students in poverty are making high growth, more than most other HS’s in our state.

Here is what I want you to know about Jane Kostik.  Jane was a quiet mentor.  She modeled how to be a teacher leader by her actions.  She worked hard (too hard) and never had an ill word for others.  She loved math.  She quietly loved on students.  She worked with a team of her peers in community together.  Leadership does not need to be loud (I’m now loud).  Leadership can be quiet.  I was watching.  Someone is watching you.  I now get lots of others are watching me.

Think about what was modeled for me when I was a young teacher.  I saw a school changed. I saw students who are not successful in other settings, successful in my school.  I saw that a relatively small committed group of teachers who are willing to work together, work hard, and believe anything is possible can change a school for the better and for a long time.  I saw experienced teachers mentoring half of their peers informally because we newbies were half of the school.  I saw our teacher leaders turn us into the next generation of leaders.  We assumed this is what you do because this is what they did.

When I left Henry and I would hear anyone say ‘we can’t’ change something in math or our district of for kids, I literally can not believe them.  It is not possible for me to believe in ‘can’t’.  I was brainwashed to believe if you work in community anyone can change paradigms and what others believe.  I believe the model of these teachers and Jane Kostik was part of why I am a leader.  I had models of teacher leadership for my first 13 years of teaching.  If you look around Minneapolis Public Schools today (and our state) – the teachers I started teaching with are leaders too in all kinds of settings.  Former Henry teachers permeate what is best in our district (in my opinion).

Thank you Jane Kostik.  Thank you for being one of my first math mentors.  Thank you for modeling steady and authentic hard working leadership in the classroom.

Closing note:

For many years I’ve been blessed beyond what I probably deserve with kind words from others.  Notes, emails, texts, comments, tweets.  Many thank me for inspiring them.  I am not going to lie, it feels good. (though I blush when Annie writes a full blog post) I save emails in a folder I call ‘read on a bad day’. I save notes in a folder of ‘the good stuff’.

I am going to let you in on a secret.  If you are not feeling as encouraged in your career as I’ve been blessed with – here are some of the reasons I think it is coming my way…I work really hard to encourage as many math teachers as I can.  I’ve done this for 25 years.  If I have not encouraged you yet, it is simply because I do not have enough hours in my day.  When I’ve encouraged others, they’ve encouraged me when I  needed it.  Just in the last 10 minutes – a math teacher peer texted me saying, “you are so supportive…I hope you know I have your back.”  This text was unsolicited and not about anything specific.  It was lovely.  It reminded me to keep the chain going so I texted two other math teachers words of encouragement.

Also, if you want to feel encouraged, blog your truth.  It is nice to be past some of my early insecurities (though I still ahve them).  This blog is my math voice – it is pretty similar to what I would say to you if you lived in Minnesota and we were together for coffee like I was with Annie Perkins yesterday (she taught me how to use Evernote & Snagit).  I don’t worry if I have all the answers or if I fail.  You are allowed to see it all.  When I’ve most spoken my truth is when I’ve received the most positive feedback back.  Thank you all.

I challenge you to right now either text/email/tweet/direct message or call someone in the math education field and encourage them.  If you are up to it, I challenge you to do this for 2 people.  Go…..really, go….In the words of Ferris Bueller, ‘you’re still here? this blog post is over.  Go home and encourage your math peers.  Do it often.  I promise it will come back to you when you need it.


More on my  other math teacher mentors coming this year: Jean Stilwell, Sharon Stenglein, Anne Bartel, Ross Taylor, Paul Dillenberger, Sue Wygant, Ellen Delaney, Terry Wyberg, Leif Carlson, Kathryn Ramburg, Sonja Krasean,  Barb Everhart, Brenda Toenies Johnson, Nancy Nutting, and Sherry Fraser.

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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