Rachel Bachman, who earned her doctorate from the Graduate School of Education, will join the faculty at Weber State University this summer.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
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Rachel Bachman had three goals when she began pursuing her doctorate in the Graduate School of Education.
Help underprepared undergraduates. Continue to conduct research. Develop a curriculum to help solve the problems associated with teaching math.
Three checkmarks and four years later, Bachman’s work is paying off. The 28-year-old from Ulysses, Pa., will begin work this summer as an assistant professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, where she will prepare elementary and secondary educators to teach math.
“I can continue working on this very real problem we have of students attending college who are not prepared to take on the math that they’re asked to,” she says. “I’ve pursued a position in which I can help train teachers and say to them: ‘We have to change our mindset. Everyone can do math if we teach it well.’ But for so long, we have not taught it well. We’ve accepted the belief that some people can do math and others cannot.”
Bachman, who addressed her Graduate School of Education classmates at the school’s commencement ceremony on May 10, received her undergraduate degree from Penn State University and her master’s in teaching from Binghamton University in 2009. At Binghamton, she taught remedial math classes to Educational Opportunity Program students that went back to the foundations of mathematical concepts instead of approaching problems procedurally.
“We often say to students: ‘For this kind of problem, do this and this and this, and you will get the right answer,’” she says. “There’s no real inclusion of why these steps make sense and why they ended up producing the right answer.”
Students who are able to memorize procedures usually do well in math, Bachman says.
“For most people, memorizing for no particular reason is difficult,” she says.
A teaching example is using algebra tiles for algebra instruction.
“Algebra came from geometry,” Bachman says. “But throughout history, the two diverged away from each other. All of the meaning of algebra is over here in geometry, but we don’t treat it that way. I attempted in my class to bring the two back together so we could understand where the real meaning of algebra comes from.”
Students’ reactions to the alternative teaching methods proved encouraging to Bachman.
“I’m much more confident in this approach now than I was four years ago because of the students and their ability to understand and learn,” she says. ‘It was their ability to grab ahold of these (methods) and encourage me to teach math this way and remediate this way.”
Bachman also taught a Mathematics for Nursing class to Decker students. The course was developed by Jean Schmittau, professor in the Graduate School of Education, was also served as Bachman’s mentor while leading the Teacher Leader Quality Partnership project to improve mathematics teaching in New York state.
“Rachel used many of the pedagogical practices we employed with the classes she taught at Binghamton University and eventually I was able to call upon her to also conduct sessions for the teachers in the project,” Schmittau says. “I always shared with her the research underlying this work and I am delighted that she will now be advancing to prepare elementary math specialists in her new professorial appointment.”
Bachman’s path to her doctorate was inspired by her grandfather, Marion Alsdorf, who was once faced with the choice of going to college or saving the family farm in rural Pennsylvania. Alsdorf, who died in 2010, chose the farm.
“I always thought: ‘Which one would I have chosen?’ I’m glad I never had to decide,” Bachman says. “When he heard that I was accepted into the (doctoral) program, he was in a nursing home. But he told all of the nurses about me. I went to see him one day and he said: ‘I never thought someone in our family would get their doctorate.’”
The professors and students that Bachman worked with have helped to make that dream a reality.
“The professors in the Graduate School of Education are, hands down, the best teachers I’ve ever met,” she says. “They are models of how to become good teachers.
“Students are why I started to teach and why I want to continue teaching. … I just had an interest: ‘It looks like people didn’t learn math well. How can we teach it better?’ I feel like the opportunities that opened at Binghamton University gave me the chance to do that. I think I’m on a good path to continue to grow as a good math teacher.”