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Faculty Spotlight: Sarah Ives

Teaching math for the ‘real world’

Sarah Ives, assistant professor in the Math Learning Skills Center, has been selected as the 2017-18 Outstanding Teacher for the College of Education. The award is given by the Faculty Senate, with the concurrence of the Dean, and recognizes Dr. Ives for her effective teaching and the impact she has had on the lives and careers of students.

Sarah Ives photoShe’s known along her wing of Eureka Hall offices as a passionate educator who’s eager to share creative math lessons with her colleagues. “Usually whenever I do something I’m really excited about,” she says, “I’ll pop my head in and say ‘Omigosh, you have to hear about this activity we did today.’”

On one occasion, she demonstrated how she teaches credential students to piece together colorful tiles to think about fractions in new ways. “I’m just super passionate about the teaching aspect of my job,” she says, “It shows, I guess.”

Called to teach

Ives traces her interest in teaching to age eight, when her proclivity for math made her a natural tutor. “I had a really close friend who struggled with multiplication tables, and in that day and age it was all about memorizing facts. If you weren’t a good memorizer, you weren’t very good at math,” she says. “Anyway, I just remember her struggling and I would help her out. And that started the bug of wanting to be a math teacher.”

Her original plan was to get a Ph.D. in math and become a math professor, bypassing the “stupid education classes” normally required as part of a teaching credential.

But her plan fell apart in grad school, when as a student teacher she realized she knew nothing about teaching. “I had over 100 students, and I remember some of my evaluations were like, ‘I didn’t even need to go to the class. I could have just read the textbook.’ Because literally, all I was doing was taking the textbook and putting it up on the chalkboard and then expecting them to put it in their notes. I knew nothing about how to teach.”

The solution to her teaching problem came about in a surprising way.

Learning from failure

Surprisingly, Ives’ path to teaching success came about through two significant failures.

First, she washed out of the math Ph.D. program at North Carolina State University after flunking her qualifying exams. “Since high school, my plan was to be a math professor and to get my Ph.D. in math,” she recalls. “So when I failed that second qualifier, I was devastated, of course.”

Noticing that the university offered another program in Mathematics Education, she switched her major, since she wanted to teach anyway. “I feel that was one time that life intervened to redirect my path to where I should be. Failing my comps was the worst and best thing that could have happened to me.”

In her math education courses, Ives says she realized for the first time how people actually learn to make sense of math. “I was wait, division is repeated subtraction? Just all these things that no one had ever made the connections for me before,” she says. “It wasn’t until I was working on my Ph.D. in education that I feel I really, truly began to understand math.”

Fast forward five years: after earning her Ph.D. in math education, she took an assistant professorship at Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi in the math department, a position she was eminently qualified for considering her bachelor’s and master’s in math, along with the doctoral training in pure math up to dissertation. But at her three-year review, the unthinkable happened. “I was fired from Corpus. Again, another worst thing that could have happened,” she recalls.

But Texas’ loss turned out to be Sac State’s gain. “It’s such a better fit. I absolutely love Sacramento. I love California. I love the people I’m working with.”

Those experiences changed her view of failure. “Looking back, I feel like it’s how you look at things or the attitude that you have that will help direct where your life goes,” she says. “Sometimes I like to tell that story to students that don’t pass or fail out. It’s happened to me as well. Some of the major junctures of my life have been out of my control.”

Now she shares that enthusiasm with undergrads and teaching credential candidates. “Both of those populations tend to be more on the math-phobic side. I’ve had several share with me how ... they feel they’ve never belonged in math. And then by the end of the semester, to see that 180 of ‘Hey, I think I can make sense of this math thing,’ and have a little more confidence and less fear. Being able to see so much growth is what’s rewarding.”

Inspiring students

Many students have come to believe that there are some people who have a “math gene” and some who don’t – a myth that Ives is working to dispel.

“It’s not your fault; you just haven’t had a good teacher,” she says, trying to remember that she’s working, not just with numbers and formulas, but with people who have feelings and baggage tied up with learning math. “You need to take all that into consideration to be an effective math teacher, in my opinion. Trying to make it relevant to what students do every day.”

Ives admits it’s difficult to make practical application of multiplying and dividing polynomial rational expressions. But other courses, such as Math Across Cultures, are a bit more engaging.

In that course, Ives says, “we look at math in music and games and all kinds of fun topics that most of them have never seen before.” Lessons examine the ways ancient Mayan and Egyptian cultures used different symbols to count and perform various mathematical algorithms. “I’ll get students who are polar opposites as far as their level of comfort with math,” she says. “It can be fun to try to tease that out.” In fact, last semester a student wrote in her evaluation: “Before taking this class I wasn’t very passionate about math, but this class taught me so much about mathematics that made me change my perspective on the subject.”

Redefining teaching

Recently named president-elect of the California Math Council – North Chapter, Ives will be president of that body in two years. She hopes the platform will help promote ways for math teachers to hone their craft.

“One thing that I’d like to do moving forward is to help secondary teachers redefine teaching,” she says. “Too many of us believe that teaching is a person standing in the front at a chalkboard demonstrating knowledge.”

Best practice now is “facilitated teaching,” she says, whereby instructors give students a rich problem-solving task and stay on the sidelines, facilitating student conversations about how to do the math. The challenge is to help more teachers adopt the method and “redefine” their attitude about teaching.

“Math has always been something that’s fascinated me, and something I just love,” she says. “I hope that shows.”

The ceremony to recognize the Outstanding Faculty Award recipients will be held at 3 p.m. Tuesday, April 10, in the University Union Redwood Room.