When the bell rang marking the end of school, most third-graders headed outside to play. Joan Gujarati went hunting for challenging math problems.
She routinely went to her dad, who would make up problems on a sheet of paper and put the answers on the back. “He would say ‘no peeking’ while he worked on his textbooks,” Gujarati said.
That early arrangement helped draw Gujarati into a subfield of education that sometimes makes others panic: mathematics.
Her father was an economics professor at West Point, and her mother was a secondary school social studies teacher, but Gujarati didn’t plan to follow her parent’s footsteps in education. At Tufts University, she initially decided to study biology and had planned to go into medicine. But her plans turned upside down after she took a child development course and finished an internship at the Children’s Museum in Boston. “That really propelled me to want to work with children on a deeper level,” Gujarati said.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in child study and Spanish and continued at Tufts to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching. That led to more than a decade in the field, serving as a first-grade teacher for more than a decade in Andover, Mass.
During that decade Gujarati and her principal agreed that math — and a passion for effective math instruction — came to her naturally. She became a mathematics professional developer for the district, training new teachers, providing in-service courses on the math curriculum, and creating district-wide math assessment tools.
As she was doing her work in the district, she noticed that many teachers were anxious about mathematics instruction. “Math is such a central area, and when teachers are not comfortable with it, that’s really going to perpetuate a negative cycle,” Gujarati said. “If teachers are not comfortable with math, that’s going to transfer to the students.”
She headed to Columbia University to earn an Ed.D., still intrigued by what she had observed about teachers and math. Her dissertation — Portraits of Early Career Elementary Teachers: Examining Beliefs About Mathematics in the Midst of Classroom Practices — was a qualitative analysis that looked at the relationship between teachers’ beliefs about mathematics and the impact of those beliefs in the classroom. She discovered that teachers with math-related insecurities could often pinpoint a time when the subject became a sore point — a teacher scolding them for not understanding a problem, perhaps, or encountering an equation they couldn’t solve. To her surprise, those educators excelled at teaching math.
Teachers appeared to have an inverse relationship between their mathematics identities and their classroom practices. As negative as they may have felt about themselves with regard to mathematics, they expended that much more effort to ensure that their students would have positive experiences and not be stigmatized by math as they had been.
Now Gujarati has joined Brown as a lecturer and director of elementary education in the Master of Arts in Teaching program. She comes to Brown from the School of Education at Manhattanville College, where she taught elementary mathematics methods and instructional strategies and served as associate dean for accreditation and technology.
She continues her interest in making teachers more comfortable around math. Her research includes analyzing “math autobiographies” — the details of teacher experiences with the subject. “I want to know their history,” Gujarati said.