Focus in Sound - 20

N.C. Teacher Andi Webb

Welcome to FOCUS In Sound, the podcast series from the FOCUS newsletter published by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.  I’m your host, science writer Ernie Hood.

In this edition of FOCUS In Sound, we focus on an outstanding teacher who has been recognized in the past by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and we’ll see what impact that recognition has had on her career, her teaching, and her life.

Andi Webb is a math coach at Alderman Road Elementary School in Fayetteville, North Carolina.  She has 19 years of experience in the classroom, with a proven track record of leadership at many grade levels and in different subject areas.  She is an instructional coach and mentor for other teachers, and has led professional development opportunities for teachers. 

Andi was born and raised in North Carolina, received her education in the Cumberland County Schools, and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a double major in elementary education and English. She earned a Master’s Degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in education, with a focus on K-8 science education.  As we will hear, she has traveled all over the world pursuing her passion for teaching science and math.

Among the many honors Andi has won for her teaching achievements, she is a National Board Certified Teacher. In 2015, she was honored with a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award for Science and Mathematics Teachers.  The Career Award provides $175,000 in support over five years to eligible teachers in the North Carolina public school system. 

Andi Webb, welcome to FOCUS In Sound…

Thank you for having me.

Andi, you are roughly halfway through your five-year Career Award funding. What has the Career Award allowed you to do that you would otherwise have been unable to do?

The Career Award has provided opportunities for high-quality professional development, not only for myself, but for my colleagues on our Singapore math team. The Career Award has also provided instructional materials for the teachers throughout my school, kindergarten through fifth grade, as well as put instructional materials in the hands of our students that they did not have previously. 

Well you have certainly been quite the world traveler over the past several years.  Tell us a bit about some of the places you’ve visited and experiences you’ve had…

I’ve had the privilege to travel to six of the seven continents, and approximately 40 countries.  One of my favorite countries to travel is Indonesia.  I’ve been there three times now and have hopes to return again.  I worked there through a program that partnered American teachers with schools in predominantly Muslim areas.  The school where I worked formed for displaced children after the 2004 tsunami, and I feel that the people there are what I call my Acehnese family, because the school is Sekolah Sukma Bangsa school in Aceh, Indonesia.

How have those travels effected you as an educator?

The travels have effected me as an educator by making me much more open-minded.  I don’t think that I was closed-minded prior to my travels, but I do believe that I’m much more open-minded than I was previously.   I also think that my travels have enabled me to better relate to our students who come from different areas of the world and have very different backgrounds than what we may be familiar with. 

As an educator in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which is known for being the home of Fort Bragg, I’m sure your student population is quite diverse.

It is diverse.  We actually at our school have the highest number of English language learners at all elementary schools in Cumberland County, but in the last few years, we’ve had students that have come from Russia, and even from Yemen.  We have a student at our school now who is from Yemen, and he speaks Arabic.  He and I have a very good rapport with each other, and I don’t think that I would have had that without my travels in the Middle East, and my attempt at learning at least a few phrases in Arabic. 

You mentioned already that you are a practitioner of the Singapore math teaching method…and you’ve been to Singapore!

Yes.  I am the coach for our Singapore math team.  Until this year we’ve had eight members, including myself, of our Singapore math team.  We lost one of our members to a neighboring school to further her career as an instructional coach, and she is now serving as the Singapore math coach at her new school, and then our principal retired.  But I was able to travel to Singapore and live and study there for three-and-a-half months through the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program. 

For the benefit of our listeners who may not be familiar with it, briefly tell us about the Singapore method.

Absolutely.  What I think predominantly is best to say about the Singapore math method, it’s really just best practices that as teachers we know we should do anyway.  Singapore is a small country, so they’re able to be much more consistent than sometimes we can be in such a large country.  But one of the components of Singapore math is what we call CPA.  The C is for concrete, the P is for pictorial, and the A is for abstract.  So the thought process behind that is, when you’re teaching children a new skill or a math standard, you start with the concrete, and you have manipulatives that they can use in their hands.  And then you move to the pictorial level, where they can draw pictures.  And the final stage should be the abstract stage, or the algorithm.  And if they struggle when they get to the abstract stage, then you should back up and go back to the concrete or pictorial stages.  It’s very effective in teaching, especially for struggling learners. 

Another concept of Singapore math is the why before the how.  Typically in math, we tend to teach children the how, solving an algorithm.  But like in reading, comprehension is very important, so in mathematics, comprehension and understand the why children are doing something and not just the how, is extremely important, and is a part of Singapore math.  So children need to be able to rationalize how they came up with a solution.  We also need to be able to accept multiple ways to solve a problem, and have children talk about that explain it to us so that we better understand their thought processes and how they learn.

Another component of Singapore math is called model drawing.  Some people call it bar modeling.  It’s very effective for word problems, and it’s extremely effective for struggling learners. 

I understand that when you were studying in Singapore, the math teachers actually didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

They didn’t.  They called mathematics, and what we call Singapore math, they say maths.  And at one of the schools that I was assigned to, the principal had asked me to explain what my research was focused upon, and I told her it was Singapore math, and she said, “What is Singapore math?”  And she was Singaporean!  And so I explained how we view it, and she thought it was hilarious. She asked me to explain to the staff at a staff meeting what Singapore math was, so I did, and the entire staff laughed, because they thought it was funny that everyone else in the world besides Singapore calls is Singapore math.  They simply call is maths. 

Andi, overall do you think the Career Award has empowered you to become a better educator?  And if so, how so?

I absolutely do. I think that it has made me feel respected as an educator, much more so than I ever had felt prior to becoming a Career Award winner through the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.  It has allowed me to attend high-quality professional development at the national and international levels that I would not have been able to participate in otherwise.  It’s allowed me to purchase very strategic instructional materials that our school needed for our teachers and our students.  I am also completing my second year of my work in Doctor of Education and Educational Leadership through East Carolina (University).  So there’s numerous opportunities that Burroughs Wellcome Fund has provided me I would not have had otherwise.  Most importantly, the respect that I feel as an educator. 

Andi, what kind of effect has the Career Award had on your colleagues and your school district?  What is the division in the Career Award funding distribution?

The division is $10,000 per year for professional development, $10,000 per year for instructional materials, $10,000 per year for salary stipend, and $5,000 per year that is saved for the awardee at the end of the five-year time frame.  If you complete the entire five years of the Career Award, then the awardee is provided with $25,000 that they can use at their discretion. 

For my colleagues and my school, we have a Singapore math team that has been comprised of eight members previously, including myself.  This year we have six members, because one of our members is now the instruction coach and the Singapore math coach at her new school, which is a part of the phase two Singapore math grant that Burroughs Wellcome Fund has increased our funding for our school and two neighboring schools, one being a Singapore math pilot school and one being a school that was not previously doing Singapore math.  So we now have a district-wide effort to implement Singapore math, which has not been done before, and we’re really excited about being able to do that. 

But also, the Career Award has significantly affected not only my colleagues and our district, but me personally.  When I look back at where I was prior to the award, and where our school was.  In 2014, we received our end-of-grade test scores for third, fourth, and fifth grade.  We had declined an overall ten percent in our mathematics scores.  That was also the years that the levels for testing changed from levels one-through-four to levels one-through-five.  Had the levels not changed, it would have been an even more significant decrease.  My principal and I knew that we needed to do something different than what we were doing previously, and I decided that I would apply for a second time for the Career Award, because I did not get accepted the first time.  That’s usually the case with me; I just have to keep persevering.  But then I applied for the award, and I was privileged enough to be accepted for it. Since then, over the past three years, we have been able to implement Singapore math very effectively in our school.  In the last two years, we have seen an increase of 14 percent in our math standardized test scores.  Including the first year, when the grant was just beginning, we increased six percent.  So we’ve had an increase of an overall 20 percent in our math scores over the last three years.  Looking back, I think to the 2014 year where my principal and I were trying to figure out what we can do differently to help our school, and we’ve come so far with our mathematics instruction.  And then I was able to live in Singapore through the Fulbright program that I never imagined I would be able to do.  While living in Singapore, I became friends with a teacher that we have remained in contact, and she knew and was personal friends with Dr. Yeap Ban Har, who is known across the world as the Singapore math guru.  So while I was in Singapore, because of the friend that I made, I was able to hang out on a personal level with Dr. Yeap Ban Har. 

And so I think it’s been an amazing process to see where our school was, when we had such a decline, to where we are now with our professional development, our instructional materials.  I had the opportunity to live in Singapore and personally spend time with Dr. Yeap Ban Har.  None of that would have been possible without the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. 

So would you encourage your peers to apply for the Career Award and other professional funding opportunities?

Absolutely.  The Career Award is life-changing.  I highly recommend it.  There’s nothing that I can say in my career that has been more impactful. 

Andi, I’m sure you’re an inspiration to your students and your colleagues, and I know I can speak for the Fund when I tell you how proud they are of your achievements and your sound use of the Career Award resources.  Thanks for joining us here on FOCUS In Sound.

Thank you for having me. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of the FOCUS In Sound podcast.  Until next time, this is Ernie Hood.  Thanks for listening!