When the coronavirus arrived in New York City, Math for America (MƒA) chemistry teacher Kimberly Dempsey did not waste any time. She immediately created a Google doc to teach her students about the pandemic, updating it daily with news stories about the virus and organizing the information into about two dozen categories from “Combating Misconceptions” to “Environmental Impact.” By March, she had compiled enough information and data in the doc to design a slide deck that she also shared with her students. Dempsey then opened up both resources to her peers in the MƒA fellowship program. The resources quickly became points of discussion on MƒA’s internal network, which allows more than 1,000 teachers to communicate from hundreds of schools. Soon Dempsey’s work was being used in schools across the city.
“What I love about MƒA is that we’re a big community,” says Dempsey, an MƒA Master Teacher. “When you want to do something extra, you need people who will say ‘This is awesome’ rather than saying ‘This is weird and impractical.’ Making this resource is not going to help my students pass a test; it’s not going to help me get a better rating from my administration. I appreciate the ability to find other teachers at MƒA who are willing to step out of their comfort zones and expand what it means to be a teacher.”
Founded in 2004, MƒA supports and rewards extraordinary New York City STEM teachers like Dempsey with four-year fellowships. The fellows, who must have at least two years of classroom experience, receive a yearly stipend, the ability to apply for grants for national conferences and workshops, and, importantly, the opportunity to engage professionally with other expert teachers. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 Master Teachers might have been at the MƒA headquarters on any given night in various intensive workshops. When New York City went into lockdown and teachers moved to remote instruction, MƒA continued its support by moving all its programming — MƒA teacher-led workshops, workshops by outside experts and the organization’s public lecture series — to remote platforms like Zoom.
When New York City schools closed, Soni Midha, a 12th- grade math teacher, was in the middle of co-leading a four-session, in-person MƒA workshop on how mathematics content builds upon itself from the sixth through 12th grades. With the help of MƒA, she quickly moved the workshop online. “When we went virtual, we were apprehensive about doing the workshop remotely,” says Midha, who has been teaching for 14 years and is in her third MƒA Master Teacher fellowship. “But then we started and it was so nice to still have that community feel, even though we were online.”
Moving MƒA’s public lecture series online benefited teachers, and there were even some silver linings that will change the way MƒA hosts public talks in the future. In person, MƒA’s scientific and mathematics lectures usually reach capacity. After moving online, the organization found that they could reach a much larger audience and that it was easier to book distinguished speakers to give talks virtually. In December 2020, vaccinologist Florian Krammer of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai gave a webinar on COVID-19 vaccines and how they work to over 300 MƒA Master Teachers and the public, a scale usually impossible in person due to space limitations.
“Florian Krammer’s talk gave teachers the chance to interact with a leading scientist around the most up-to-date information about COVID-19 and vaccine development,” MƒA president John Ewing says. “As with other MƒA programming, teachers brought what they learned back to their schools to the benefit of their students and school communities. That helped many people across the city get crucial public health information at a time when it was needed most.”
MƒA also made efforts to share what its teachers were learning about remote instruction with a wider audience. In July MƒA hosted a virtual forum attended by about 80 MƒA Master Teachers, who shared promising practices around how to best help all students to learn remotely. MƒA then worked with specific teachers to produce practical and informational resources that could be disseminated by free download in a new, dedicated section of MƒA’s website addressing four areas: community, content, engagement and assessment.
“What stands out most about our remote teaching resources is that they are written by and for teachers,” says MƒA chief operating officer Michael Driskill. “This is what real classroom teachers are figuring out in their own classrooms. It is highly relevant to that practitioner audience.”
“MƒA responded to the pandemic by adapting our fellowship model and finding new ways to support teachers. We moved workshops to Zoom, redesigned courses and created space for teachers to share and address new teaching strategies,” Driskill says. “We were initially worried that teachers would be too overwhelmed to participate, but the opposite turned out to be true — attendance has increased instead.”
“All teachers have struggled a lot with remote instruction,” says Laura Torres, a 15-year veteran chemistry teacher who joined MƒA two years ago. “It’s been so helpful to have people around you who are similar to you and are tackling the same fears and challenges as you.”
Just as MƒA creates an engaging, collaborative environment for Master Teachers to delve into topics from vaccine development and cutting-edge science research to equity in education and evaluation protocols, MƒA Master Teachers painstakingly nurture learning communities for their students. Torres’ own contribution to MƒA’s remote teaching materials centers on how she builds a welcoming and engaging online community for her students.
“We’re very vulnerable when we’re learning,” Torres says. “Especially if you’re a teenager, you may make a fool out of yourself, or you may not look good in front of other people. We have to be so aware of that and make sure that is not going to stop them. That’s where it comes back to the community: Can I create a community where it is safe to not know something and to make some mistakes?”
“Professional community is more important than ever as teachers tackle the challenges of the global pandemic and remote teaching and learning,” says Ewing. “At MƒA we will continue to support outstanding teachers as they find their way forward.”