Jen Katz: Giving students a better outlook on math and a better outlook on life
The path to teaching for Jen Katz, a 6th Grade math teacher and the math coordinator at East Cobb Middle School, was full of pleasant surprises. Math was always a passion of hers, but teaching wasn’t the first thing she pursued. It wasn’t until she was actually in a classroom that she realized it was her calling. The same goes for teaching middle school. When she came out of her Master’s, she wanted to teach elementary, but the job market wasn’t the greatest and middle school was the only option. “I ended up loving it more than I could imagine,” she said. “I’ve never gone back.”
Jen Katz now teaches a bunch of grade six classes. Alongside regular math classes, she has an advanced math class, an ESL math class, and she co-teaches a class for students with special education needs. The variety has given her a keen sense of which students are ready for more of a challenge and which students need more help.
She spends a lot of time using this sense too. At the top of a typical class, she and her students spend about 10 minutes taking notes, which they get to use during tests. She spends the rest of her time walking around making sure everyone is progressing. It allows for individualized assessment and gives her the opportunity to help before frustration and anxiety come into the picture. Jen said this approach is essential given all the time that students have spent away from the math classroom recently. The pandemic has left students with a lot of learning gaps and prioritizing memorization is a mistake. “Telling you to go home and memorize five or six formulas has no educational value,” she said. “Ultimately they do memorize it because they have used it so often.”
An enduring passion for math guides Jen in the classroom and the goal of this approach is to inspire her students to adopt a similar outlook rather than dreading the subject. “Every kid that I know that really struggled can tell me the moment it went wrong,” she said. “Kids aren’t born to hate math. Something happens.” She said sometimes there is a teacher they don’t jive with, and sometimes they haven’t fully grasped a concept and nobody has been there to fix that. Individual attention roots out the problem at its source and it is the first step towards actually liking math.
This hard work pays off in the long run. “If you like [math], you will work harder and you will do better,” she said. “If [my students] associate me with something positive, then they have now associated math with something positive. If I did that, then maybe even if they struggled a bit they are more inclined to do a little bit better the next year.” These results are what got Jen back to classroom teaching after a 14 year hiatus to raise her kids, work in school administration, and tutor. “I missed having my kids and making an impact on my students,” she said.
For Jen, truly making an impact requires more than just teaching math skills. “Teaching is maybe 50% or 60% content and the other part is helping them become decent human beings,” she said. She wants them to take ownership for their learning, realize that they can turn to her if they need support, and recognize how their behavior reflects on them. “The biggest thing I hope is to provide a positive interaction with an adult that is moving them towards being better adults in the future.”
Photos courtesy of Jen Katz