The first cohort of Robert Noyce Teacher Scholars has a news flash for fellow students: you don’t have to be a math or science whiz to become a good teacher in those fields. What you do need, though, is a good work ethic and a willingness to practice your craft. Oh, and a dose of self-confidence goes a long way.
“I wouldn’t consider myself talented in math, in all honesty. The math skills I have today are from hard work and discipline,” said Joe Cortez, one of the three scholars in the cohort. “When it comes to math, I just know there’s an answer and I ask myself, ‘How can I get to this answer?’”
As the first scholars in the Noyce Scholarship Program, Cortez, Amanda Hall, and Andrew Mansfield have the challenge of navigating the rigorous inaugural program. They’re also the first front-line recruiters for their classmates who may need that extra encouragement to pursue a teaching career in math or science in a high-needs school district.
The Noyce Scholarship Program is launching this year through a $1.4M grant from the National Science Foundation. The five-year grant is designed to reinforce science and math education in the state’s high-needs school districts. Carrie-Anne Sherwood, associate professor of science education in the Department of Curriculum and Learning, is the Principal Investigator for the program.
Students accepted into the Noyce program receive full-tuition scholarships for their final two years at Southern, plus $800 toward books.
As public education statistics continue to point to a sharp drop in the percentage of students meeting state proficiency standards in English, math, and science, the data show significant decline across all school districts. But the needs are especially daunting in high-needs districts — urban schools that typically have a greater number of students who are learning English or come from low-income families.
For the first Noyce cohort, the troubling trend is both a motivator and a potential source of satisfaction.
Mansfield, who is from Wallingford, Conn., notes that his childhood was different from the experiences that his future students are likely to bring. That difference, he said, embeds an empathy in him to extend to his future classes.
“I did not grow up in a very high-needs district. I came from a two-parent household and didn’t struggle a lot growing up,” Mansfield said. “This will mean being there for the students in times where I couldn’t possibly understand what they’re going through and making sure they know that I’m there for them.”
Cortez, from Ansonia, Conn., and Hall, from Tolland, Conn., said developing a connection with their future students is a critical piece of the puzzle. Both are both math education majors.
“I had a teacher for two years in high school that was my favorite math teacher because she would build relationships with her students. She taught math, but she wasn’t strict about it. She taught it to make sure you knew it. She made sure you understood it,” Hall said. Often that meant offering to help students after class, or walking among the students’ desks to lend help if they needed it.
Hall said she wants to become the teacher that her students seek out. “You will find a lot of people that do not like math. They say, ‘I’m not good at it,’” she said. “I’ll know I’m doing something right if my students want to come to my class and they look forward to it.”
That’s an experience Cortez can relate to. Or rather, it’s an experience he wishes he had, that has now become an incentive behind his career goal.
When Joe Cortez was in high school, math class was difficult. He had a teacher that didn’t connect with the students, and that made math a frustrating, unpleasant experience.
“I felt like I didn’t have a good relationship with my math teacher. He just came in, talked, and left. I didn’t feel I was getting enough feedback on homework or tests. It was marked ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ and when I got something wrong, I had to figure it out myself.”
Having attended high school in a high-needs district, Cortez said he understands the challenges of a diverse environment where students may learn at different paces.
“I was once a student sitting in a chair at a desk at a high-needs school. To go back as a teacher, for me, is going to be a great feeling because I know that I can really shape the way they learn,” he said.
Mansfield, a physics major, said the introduction into the Noyce program has affirmed in him the confidence that he and his cohorts will be ready to take their seat at the front of the classroom when they graduate.
“We have great counselors as part of the Noyce scholarship. It’s only just begun, but I have no fear going into it. We’re being well prepared,” Mansfield said.
Part of that preparation will be providing strong support to the cohort — and the scholars who will join the program after them. That’s a top priority to help ensure the students’ success, said Sherwood.
To recruit future scholars, Sherwood said she hopes to tap into an inherent affinity for science and math. Students often lose their sense of joy for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) studies when they reach middle-school age, she said. If their learning experience was lacking, their interest fades.
“We are all born natural scientists,” Sherwood said. “Students, for lots of different reasons, find those various majors to be particularly challenging. Because of the way science has been traditionally taught, they start to lose interest in it, or lack confidence in their abilities to be future scientists, even if it’s something they once loved.”
Hall was one of those young students who embraced her love of math in fifth grade and stuck with it. She said the prospect of joining a career that desperately needs dedicated teachers is exciting. “Everyone says you won’t have a problem finding a job,” she said, but more importantly, it will be filling a teacher gap.
“It’s especially important for high-needs areas. They get the least amount of teachers. No matter where you grow up, you deserve the right to be taught,” Hall said.
Mansfield also has no qualms about embarking on his teaching career in a high-needs school district. He and his cohorts are committed to taking jobs in a high-needs school for four years after they graduate.
“I want to help and I want to teach. If you have a passion for what you’re doing, if you’re wondering, ‘Could I pursue this?’ … it’s a rewarding field. It’s rewarding to know you’re building this next generation of people in the world,” he said.
Learn more about the Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program here. If you’re interested in applying, contact Carrie-Anne Sherwood at Sherwoodc4@southernct.edu or at (203) 392-5047.