Julia H. Cothron
Teachers are the most important part of the educational environment, says Julia H. Cothron, the director of Richmond, Virginia’s Mathematics & Science Center. She shares her views about how staff development can help teachers stay ahead of the curve, up to date in their subjects and comfortable with new technologies.
What does your organization do?
The Mathematics & Science Center is a consortium of seven school divisions [districts]. It was formed 34 years ago, in the Sputnik era, and has been funded since that time by the local school divisions.
We serve a quarter of a million teachers, students and parents each year. We provide math and science programs for students during the week, both here at our center and in schools. We have instructional kits and materials and equipment that are loaned to the schools. We also offer special programs for students and their parents on Saturday and during the summer. Another major focus is professional development programs for educators.*
What do you think accounts for your longevity?
The first secret of our success is the commitment from those seven school divisions, which is not always easy to maintain when finances get tough. The second secret is listening to those school divisions and striking a balance between their needs on fundamental math and science concepts and being futuristic — pushing the envelope and bringing in examples of exemplary programs from across the nation.
What, exactly, are you finding that teachers need?
What teachers need varies according to the stages of their career. Teachers in the beginning stages of their careers are frequently concerned with basic survival. For example, many of them are concerned with discipline in the classroom, how to pace instruction so that they can cover the objectives that are required. Many of them find that meeting the needs of a diverse population of students is a challenge.
They also sometimes need to know newer technology. In Virginia over 50 percent of our algebra objectives require the use of graphing calculators. If a teacher went to a college or a high school that did not use a graphing calculator and is expected to go in and teach on Sept 7th with a graphing calculator, that’s a survival skill.
As teachers become more experienced, they are more concerned about changing their instruction to make it more effective. That may involve different strategies for teaching things, it may involve action research in their own schools, study groups to learn more about a particular issue. For example, what’s the best way to help students learn ratio and proportional reasoning?
The more mature teachers generally have needs that relate to technology, and needs that relate to updating content if they’ve been out of the classroom.
It’s essential that you pinpoint the staff’s needs and concerns, and to recognize the fact that those change over time. If you recognize that it’s not a one-day or a one-month thing, but a multi-year commitment, you will be able to successfully make a difference over time — with staff development and with educational reform.
Are you finding that the Internet is a useful tool for staff development?
Historically, the Mathematics & Science Center has used the Internet for telementoring, to establish ways to interact and to create a community of learners. We put in the first electronic bulletin board in the Richmond area here at the center. That’s been a very effective way of keeping 30 people that took a particular staff development course together.
Of course, the use of the Internet for course research and finding resources is just unlimited.
These are very simple levels of the Internet, and we’ve been doing these for a number of years now. We’re also wrestling with how we can deliver educational programs through the Internet, or how we you deliver some component of an in-service over the Internet so that the participants don’t have to come to class every week. I think this will be a very large component of the future because adults want to learn, and they want a flexible way to learn.
How important do you think staff development is to educational reform?
Staff development is the most important factor in educational reform. Teachers are the most important part of the educational environment. You will not make educational reform without ongoing, long-term, staff development that supports the teachers.
One of my favorite quotes from the grant that started the Mathematics & Science Center was,
“If we touch a student, we’ve only touched them for an hour or a couple of days, but if we’ve touched a teacher, we’re going to impact anywhere from twenty five to one hundred and twenty five kids every year.”
Teachers are going to get excited about teaching things that are relevant to them and that are relevant to the world. That excitement carries over to students. That’s a guiding premise for us — making that connection.
*For a list of the Mathematics & Science Center’s staff development courses, visit: