Teaching Math So Students Can Learn It

“I don’t know anything else that would be as fulfilling as this,” says Joseph Danquah of his teaching career. Danquah teaches Advanced Placement Calculus AB and BC, integrated algebra, pre-calculus, and geometry at Bard High School Early College in New York. He is one of two African teachers to win a 2015 Sloan Award for Excellence in Teaching Science and Mathematics.

The Sloan Award is just one validation of Danquah’s effectiveness as a teacher, although his career choice at first displeased his father.

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“My dad never thought of teaching as a career for me. He thought I could do more,” the 36-year-old Danquah says.

The New York City high school math teacher had originally planned to become an academic. “I developed a passion for mathematics and seemed to be able to help my peers, which I always enjoyed. The dream was to get a doctorate and teach in a university somewhere.”

But the dream was shattered when his family learned that his younger brother was autistic. His mother left her job to become her son’s full-time caregiver, so Danquah left school where he was earning a Ph.D. and went home to help her.

He became a high school teacher at DeWitt Clinton, the school he’d attended for one year after arriving in the United States from Ghana when he was nearly 18. “I was lucky enough to meet some of the teachers who had left an impact on me,” he says.

The award-winning teacher, also a Master Teacher Fellow with Math for America, says that math was not always his strong suit. He approached the subject in unorthodox ways that his teachers frowned upon. Instead of attempting to understand how his mind worked, his teachers discouraged him, shutting down his unique approach. He struggled to adapt, and eventually used drawing as a way to grasp what he was being taught.

“I was thinking about it spatially and so I started to draw. I couldn’t think in the way my earlier teachers wanted me to think. I didn’t even know I could draw. But that was the way I understood math.”

Because of his own struggles, Danquah is sensitive to students who approach math in unusual ways. “I try to make it easy for them to be themselves.”

Danquah also encourages students to teach what they know, calling it “critical.” “That way there is ownership,” he says. “One student discovered a proof on his own, and we called it by his name until later on in the year when we formally learned it. He was surprised that someone else had already discovered it.”

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