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Olympia educator receives Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching

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Jana Dean_class
Jana Dean is a recipient of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching. The highly-selective international exchange and professional development program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

For six years, Jana Dean was the lead teacher and program developer of the Jefferson Accelerated Math and Science Program at Jefferson Middle School in Olympia. In 2016, she was named the Washington state recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, which is a program administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology. A few months ago, Dean, who now teaches math, health and study skills at Reeves Middle School, learned she had received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching.

As a Fulbright Award recipient, Dean will be in the Netherlands for six months. She seeks to learn how Dutch math teachers meet the needs of immigrant students while keeping lessons rigorous, relevant and engaging. The Dutch teachers she will work with are in a tradition of connecting math instruction to students' imaginations and lived experience. In addition to improving her own practice, her goal is to help other educators inspire confidence and competence in the next generation. Her work focuses on the role of public school classrooms in opening doors for underrepresented students.

WEA was fortunate enough to catch Dean before she embarked on her fellowship in January 2019. 

Jana Dean_OlympiaEA
Jana Dean

Q: When did you first realize your passion for teaching (or your passion for teaching math)?

A: I didn’t know I would end up specializing in math. When I first started teaching, I already knew that I didn’t want to be the kind of teacher who demanded memorization from my students. I wanted to give them hands on and heart felt experiences that from which they could create their own understandings. In the 1990s, when I started, the math standards most lent themselves to that kind of teaching, so in what was becoming, like it or not, an increasingly standards-driven profession, I gravitated to math. Also, math class was the place I was most likely to hear students exclaim their delight at a personal breakthrough.  

Q: What is the best part about teaching math?

A: Mathematics, like poetry, is a language. When students begin to defend their mathematical ideas they are getting access to a powerful language for describing the world.  

Math class can be a place rich in learning how to listen to each other and to see the world and the ways of numbers from other people’s point of view. As such, teaching math is teaching empathy and perspective-taking. 

Q: What one thing would you like to change about the way we teach math to students?

A: Math should always be about solving problems and never about getting answers. Students should be finding and defending answers that make sense to them rather than pursuing answers that have been hidden from view by their text or their teacher. 

Q: What do you say to people who say, “I am not a math person”?

A. Everyone is a math person, as much as everyone is a language person. It may be that until now, math class has not worked for you, but that is about math class, not about math itself. Next, I get out a game to play or puzzle to solve or a picture to think about using the language of mathematics. 

Q: Did you select the Netherlands for the semester research program? What do you hope to find and see in the Netherlands?

A: I selected the Netherlands because of the Dutch tradition of connecting math to students’ imaginations and lived experiences. In addition, like the United States, the majority of students there attend public schools and like US schools, Dutch schools serve immigrant and language-minority and culturally diverse communities. I want to learn how Dutch teachers adapt their practices to serve the diverse communities attending their schools. 

Q: What will you share about your public schools experience with educators there?

A: I will share how inspiring it is to come together at a faculty each fall and work together to support every single child to succeed each year. I will share that I am surrounded by talented and hard-working colleagues in my school and in my district. I will share that our public schools, while not perfect, are the cornerstone of our centuries old attempt at democracy. I will share that in spite of every communities’ dependence on and support of its public schools, we struggle for adequate funding and against privatization. I will share that our unions are essential in elevating our profession and protecting us from decisions and practices that would undermine our capacity to teach and serve our communities. 

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