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From Markers to Supporters: Improving student’s math abilities through professional growth and giving

By Lata Punetha

For more than 50 years, a passionate group of mathematics educators from across Canada have been uniting to work together with the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC) to provide feedback to students keen to improve their mathematical abilities via contest marking. From an initial team of fewer than ten markers in 1962 to a current group of almost 350 in 2023, we have witnessed math educators consistently returning every year to provide their support in marking contests for the CEMC. These events take place twice a year to mark the Euclid, Fryer, Galois, Hypatia and the Canadian Senior and Intermediate Mathematics Contests. More recently, markers participate in a hybrid format at these events, allowing more markers to contribute. When the contests began in 1962, they were initially restricted to Ontario. Today, students from over 80 countries participate in these math contests.

Problem-solving techniques

Participation in the marking events gives math educators the opportunity to assess contest papers of students from outside their school. This means identifying different problem-solving techniques and opening their eyes to various layouts and approaches. Markers are instructed to focus on the process used by the students to solve problems, rather than just the outcome. Educators find immense value in examining the work of different students. Contests help educators identify patterns where students consistently make mistakes and understand how students from different geographical locations approach the same math problems in different ways. This insight assists them in returning to their classrooms and explaining concepts differently to their students or teaching them more efficient solution techniques that they learned from other educators at the event or from contest papers.

Laurissa Werhun, a mathematics educator and marker from Toronto, Ontario, says, Math is a global unifier – there may be countless ways to solve the same math problem. Marking contest papers from students of diverse geographical backgrounds enhances our understanding of different mathematical approaches and often serves as a valuable learning experience for us teachers. Connecting with different math teachers at the CEMC marking events makes us aware of how to cater to students with varying math abilities, thereby improving our teaching skills!

Professional development

The demographic at marking events ranges from current undergraduate mathematics students to math educators, math enthusiasts working in industry, university faculty members, and retired educators. Collaboration with other math educators helps markers share notes about what is working in their classrooms. Educators find that these shared experiences are crucial to help them understand their students better and help them in their journey with mathematics. For a secondary school educator, this could be learning about the intricacies of running a math club and training students for contests, for a university instructor it could help them understand the diversity that mathematics can bring into their classroom as they welcome international students and for a young educator these events turn out to be a fantastic training ground to learn about different problem-solving methods.

Jane Robinson, a University of Waterloo alum and a marker for over 30 years shares, These events gave us an opportunity to work alongside people who were our role models in the math world. We were able to share ideas, learn from one another and leave inspired to come back – year after year – and contribute to the CEMC.

Above all, these events bring together a group of mathematicians who are looking for a challenge, one that they may not be getting enough of during the rest of the year. Krysia Piorczynski, a supporter of the CEMC and wife of the late David Shepherd, a long-time marker and contributor to the CEMC remembers, Math teachers often lack the opportunity to challenge themselves on a daily basis while teaching students at a specific grade level as they need to stick to the curriculum. However, marking events provide them with a chance to push their limits a bit further. David, motivated by these events, would practice more math to take part in them. It was at the CEMC where he truly discovered his potential, as it presented challenges that went beyond the ordinary, urging him to strive to be better, year after year.

Creating a strong math community

Most markers do not see each other all year and meet periodically only at marking events. These events help foster deep relationships and connections among like-minded mathematicians. Thomas Griffiths, a retired mathematics educator from London, Ontario shares that it is the people that make him come back to this event for over the last 50 years. Finding a group of people under one roof that are passionate about mathematics, understand the same kind of math humour and with a similar zeal to make mathematics interesting and fun for their students is not an easy task. While educators may be exposed to events in their own school board, the marking event gives them a chance to connect with math educators from across Canada and now virtually in other countries too! Some educators feel that marking events are a great way to introduce new educators into the world of programming and to help them make meaningful math connections. Christopher Ing, a mathematics educator and marker from Windsor, Ontario talks about his experience, I've been involved in marking for over two decades now. Right after University, I started marking alongside my math teachers. And now, even some of my students volunteer their time for this purpose. It's amazing how life comes full circle, with multiple generations working together at these marking events organized by the CEMC, all striving for one common goal: empowering students to do better in mathematics.

Investing time and support

Math educators over the years have invested time and some even invest financial resources to create a positive impact and drive meaningful change through the CEMC. These educators have recognized the potential within the younger generation, which has motivated them to donate and contribute, ensuring that these students have access to improved math resources and opportunities, leading to better outcomes. Betty Madter, a University of Waterloo alum and retired math educator shares, The University of Waterloo got me a successful career, participating in the events organized by the CEMC brought me back home – giving me the ability to contribute to the future of many other such students that could come to the university eventually, with the potential to create a positive ripple effect as these students, in turn, pay it forward to future generations.