When the British Columbia Association of Mathematics Teachers added up all the data, it reached an inescapable conclusion and named Tamara DeFord winner of its Outstanding Elementary School Teacher award for 2019-20.
DeFord is a Grade 5-6 teacher at Prince George’s Ecole College Heights Elementary. As a BCAMT award recipient, she was judged to have demonstrated strength in numeracy, teaching, innovation, curriculum, assessment practices, professional learning and mentorship.
“It seems pretty crazy,” DeFord said of being chosen for the provincial honour. “I always think that 11-year-olds are really great at keeping you humble because I certainly don’t feel like I go into the classroom every day and have things work out perfectly. But it’s nice to be recognized for work that I’ve put in to learn about becoming a better math teacher and how to make math more exciting for kids, which is something I feel really strongly about.”
DeFord was nominated for the BCAMT award by Marie Fanshaw, District Numeracy Resource Teacher in School District No. 57.
“I cannot think of anyone who is more passionate about making sure that her students really love math,” Fanshaw said. “It’s just a really positive math environment in her classroom.
“Tamara is very forward-thinking and she always has her kids actively engaged,” Fanshaw added. “When I visit Tamara’s classroom, her kids are always up and moving and doing math. She’s always getting them to do their learning, she’s not just a stand-and-deliver teacher. She’s very hands-on and she then builds their capacity by having them engage in some self-directed learning projects. She really builds her community of learners. It’s something Tamara has always been passionate about and I think that transfers through to her students.”
DeFord just completed her third year at Ecole College Heights Elementary and her 13th in SD 57. She has also taught at Quinson Elementary, Pineview Elementary and spent time in the district’s Learning Innovations department, now known as Curriculum and Innovation. Inside the classroom, student engagement is always a top priority for her.
“I spend a lot of time planning for things that will be interesting and engaging for my students,” she said. “I want them to know that math is more than just calculations, that math is all around us in the world and that it can be really fun and really creative.”
DeFord often has her students work in groups. In this way, she encourages and enables them to tackle challenging problems and solve them together.
“I try to bring in context where I can and I try to let kids play with concepts and ideas where I can,” DeFord said. “I try to make it something that is more than just a textbook.”
One of DeFord’s favourite activities is something she calls Number Talks.
“It’s just a really quick routine that I start off most of my classes with,” she said. “I pose a problem for the kids and they have to come up with a way to solve it in their heads – so working on their mental math skills. It’s a really great way for kids to see that everybody approaches problems in a different way. I give them a few minutes to think about the question and then I have students share their strategies – how did they solve it, how did they approach the problem? Kids really love participating. They love to talk about and share how they thought about the problem.
“It’s awesome for me because I get to learn more about how kids think and it’s awesome for the kids because they learn from each other. And it’s been really powerful for me as a teacher because I realize now, so profoundly, that kids come all ready to class with lots of really good ideas about numbers and how they work and we just have to really kind of tap into that and encourage them to move forward, more than telling them how to do things.”
Typically, DeFord also does a geometry project with her students.
“This year, my students did a project called Geometrocity where they build a city out of geometry and build it up in three dimensions,” she said. “It’s pretty cool and really engaging and they really like doing it and learn a lot of geometry while they do it.”
This year’s Geometrocity project would have been done in teams in the classroom but the halt to in-class learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced a change of plans. Instead, students worked individually in their own homes.
“(The cities) still looked beautiful,” DeFord said. “They did a good job.”
In the provincial curriculum, areas of concentration for Grade 5-6 math classes include fractions, decimals, number properties (multiples, factors, prime numbers, composite numbers, whole-number calculations) and financial literacy (budgeting, financial transactions, making change). As much as possible, DeFord uses hands-on methods to help students master these concepts.
Outside the classroom, DeFord has worked as a math liaison for SD 57, which she said was beneficial in her own professional development. As well, she has led district-level workshops on several occasions.
“I’ve been really fortunate to be able to participate in some of that mentoring of teachers and helping other teachers in the district to grow and learn, which I really love doing,” she said.
DeFord is the only northern-based winner of a BCAMT award. The other four are from the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island.
“It’s awesome to have people recognized in the north, for what we’re doing for our district and our students,” Fanshaw said.