Education Desk: Teacher Of The Year Makes School Mathalicious

Sep 15, 2016

Kimberly Thomas is Illinois Teacher of the Year for 2016. She teaches math at an alternative school in Peoria County.

Kimberly Thomas is the reigning Illinois Teacher of the Year. The title doesn’t come with a satin sash and a tiara, but you might think it does once you get a taste of Thomas’s extreme effervescence. This Peoria math teacher has a lot more going for her than just bubbles and fizz, but you have to get you a sip of that first.

I interviewed Thomas at the Illinois State Fair, where she was giving math demonstrations in the Governor's Tent. Around her table, she had posted samples of math activities she used with her students. For example, there were math-o-lanterns -- cereal boxes decorated with geometric shapes to make faces -- that her students had constructed while figuring out how to calculate surface area. Notice that I didn’t say she taught them how? She prefers to guide students to discovering answers for themselves.

Interview Highlights

 On the value of student discovery: 

“They have to write their own formula for surface area. And it’s so a-math-azing for them to come up to the board and show me what they came up with, because all of them end up simplifying to the same thing. They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh! You can write it this way or you can write it that way!’ And I’m like ‘Yes! That’s one of the most mathabulous things about math!’

“It’s fun for a kid to discover their own formula … instead of just saying here it is. That is a snooze fest. Let the kid explore, let them come up with them themselves… Sometimes the kids are like, ‘Why don’t you just tell us?’ No! Because you’ll remember it if I don’t tell you.”

On textbooks:

“I don’t use a textbook. I use all my mathlicious ideas and activities that I’ve created throughout the years, because every year is a different year of kids, and I’m going to have it to where what I’m doing is in their best interests.... To me, textbooks are guidelines. It’s the supplement for me, instead of the other way around.”

On how long she's been teaching:

“I will begin my 10 times two plus fourth year on Wednesday.”

On standardized testing:

“I never, ever bring up state testing in my classroom. I don’t need to. They know from the day one squared to day 10-squared plus 80 we are going to be learning, and whenever that test comes up, we’re going to be ready for it. I don’t have to sit there and pressure them about 'here it comes'… Are you kidding me? No.”

On teaching through doing aka directions to her classroom:

“Let’s get linear and parallel, let’s translate ourselves down the hallway, stop where the walls are perpendicular, and rotate 90 degrees, translate yourselves up to the square-root of nine floor, rotate another 90 and enter that room without a roof.”

On what her students can count on: 

"They can rely and trust that I’ll be wearing heels and drinking coffee, that I will make mistakes, that I will say I’m sorry, that I will love them, I will have their back, I will make learning fun, and they will learn math at a depth they never thought was possible.”

On classroom management:

“I always tell kids: I’m not going to change how I teach because of how you behave. You’re going to change how you behave because of how I teach. And they do.”

On the one thing all students need:

“All kids, I don’t care where they’re from, want to be loved at school. It doesn’t matter what their background is; they want to be loved. And I have no problem letting them know that I love them.”

 

Next month, Mrs. Thomas will pass her title to a new Teacher of the Year