Proving anyone can learn math

Dianne Young, a developmental math professor at the Austin Community College District in Austin, TX, showed Shellie Burton strategies to overcome her math anxiety. Shellie now uses those strategies with her own students.

“She believed in me and showed me what an excellent teacher looks like,” Shellie Burton, a 3rd grade teacher, said about Dianne Young, a professor who helped her reach her goals.

Shellie, a college dropout and single mother, enrolled in at Austin Community College (ACC), when her youngest child entered kindergarten. She wanted to earn a teaching degree so that she could better support her family.

But after being placed in developmental math, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to graduate. “Math was my biggest anxiety,” Shellie confided. “I hated math growing up. I really wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t know if I had the math skills to be able to do it.”

Dianne, who has taught developmental math at ACC for a dozen years, works with many students who have math anxiety. She believes that every student can learn math. “Maybe he or she hasn’t learned how to do it yet, but I can teach anybody math if they show up and they want to learn,” she said. “Math should never be the reason why somebody can’t fulfill the career path that they want.”

… I can teach anybody math if they show up and they want to learn.

— Professor Dianne Young, Developmental Math, Austin Community College District, Austin, TX

Shellie met Dianne when she took her Elementary Algebra course. “She was so encouraging, and no question was a dumb question,” Shellie recalled. “Unlike most professors, she walked around the classroom. She got to know you, and she was really passionate about her subject.”

Dianne remembered Shellie coming to office hours with her friends and asking a lot of questions. “She made it clear she didn’t like math,” Dianne commented. “But she wanted to learn. I taught her that she can do math. And I told her that when she becomes a teacher, she will need to teach math and she can inspire her students.”

Shellie passed all her math courses at ACC and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in elementary education at Concordia University in Austin. Since graduating, she has taught in elementary schools in Texas and California, and was nominated for Teacher of the Year by her school during her fourth year of teaching.

Shellie regularly uses Dianne’s strategies to alleviate math anxiety in her own classroom. “Dianne asked a lot of questions,” she noted. “‘Who can help me with the next step?’ and ‘What’s the next step that I would do?’ So there is a conversation that’s going on instead of a teacher telling you what to do.”

“Dianne also pulled different students into the conversation because there are different strategies you can use to solve a math problem,” she added. “Having peers teach peers is another great way to get students to learn and feel safe to share. I do that in my classroom, too.”

To help her students overcome their fear of failure, Shellie occasionally makes mistakes on the board on purpose. She said, “My students will say, ‘Ms. Burton, you added that wrong,’ and I’ll thank them for helping me out so they know that mistakes are OK and we’re on the same team. I learned that from Dianne.”

“I’m proud of Shellie,” Dianne concluded. “If I ever have grandchildren, I would want them to be in her class because she’s very, very good.”

Biographies

Shellie Burton is a single mother of three. After transferring from Austin Community College to Concordia University to earn her bachelor’s degree in elementary education, she taught 4th and 5th grade in Round Rock Independent School District in Texas. She is currently a 3rd-grade teacher at Huntington Christian School in California.

Dianne Young earned her bachelor’s degree in secondary education math from the University of North Florida and her master’s degree in education from Virginia Polytechnic University. She has been teaching developmental math courses at community colleges for more than twenty years, most recently as an adjunct professor at the Austin Community College District.