Kim Thomas is on a quest to make the world a little bit more “mathilicious.”
At Woodruff Alternative School in Peoria, Illinois, where she’s been teaching 6-8th grade for four years, she’s known around the hallways as “Math Mom.” It’s easy to see why. At this school for expelled students, Kim strives to make sure her students’ common denominators are met first: happiness and love.
As Kim will tell you, she’s been teaching for 10 x 2 + 4 years. Each day she walks into the classroom, she brings with her a high energy that’s contagious, and every idea and project is her own. Her end game? Make math fun. In 2016, she was recognized for the value she brings to her students and named Illinois’ State Teacher of the Year.
Talking to Kim, it’s hard not have a positive parabola on your face. Her enthusiasm for math is infinite; her love for students unparalleled. In celebration of Mathematics Month, Kim shares the factors for a successful classroom and how she keeps her students engaged.
Q: How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
Kim: When you walk into my room, math is giving you the biggest hug.
Kids will come in and have this negative parabola, “Oh, it’s math class,” they say. Wait, just give me a 60th of a minute, and I can let that mathiliciousness rub off on you. I tell them the only negative allowed in this room is a negative integer.
So many of them come in behind. They’re not at grade level, or they think, “Oh, I don’t know my times tables so I can’t learn math.” Yes, you can. We discover, explore, and talk a lot. I try to empower them to know they can do this, that they might not be able to do it right now but they’re going be able to. And to let them know it doesn’t matter what level they’re at when they come into my classroom.
I tell teachers, “Don’t be discouraged how by students enter; be encouraged by how they exit [your classroom].”
Q: What are a couple examples of how you make your classroom mathilicious?
Kim: In the hallways, when they’re lining up to go lunch or another classroom, I always tell them to stay linear and parallel, or walk to where the walls are perpendicular. In my classroom, I’ll say “please rotate 90 degrees.” I never say turn.
I bring in a lot of music, and have math theme songs every year. One favorite is Celebrate Mathematics Come On! “Bring your fractions and your equations and your variables, too, we’re gonna celebrate mathematics with you!” They don’t know when I’m gonna blurt out a song. But soon they start making up their own songs with math and that makes it a lot of fun. Sometimes I feel like I have too much fun.
Q: Why is it important to bring joy into the classroom?
Kim: I want the time my students spend with me to be one of the best fractions of their day. I think if everyone thought that way, kids would just have this mathmazing time at school. It’s okay to have fun. You remember when you have fun. It makes them more engaged.
My kids are a riot. They come back at me with, “Hey, Mrs. Thomas, don’t forget we have a square root of 25-2 day weekend.” They’re so excited. Mathilicious is contagious. They learn to speak that way, too. That’s what I love about it. Math is a language for sure.
Q: How do you help ease students’ anxiety with math?
Kim: Relationships are the prime factor of effective teaching. You have to have those relationships and having that really allows no one to be apprehensive. That is my main priority. For no one to feel like they’re afraid to try to learn anything.
For some of my students, you say the word “fraction” and they want to run out of your room. I try to relate math to something they like. When they come into my classroom, I have a “Love to Know You” page they fill out. It’s about them: favorite cartoon, candy, song, TV show, book, etc. I use those in my lessons. If they like Spongebob and Patrick, here we go. I have a huge Spongebob poster in my room. I wrote on it, “Soak In Some Math.”
Q: What is your ultimate goal as a math teacher?
Kim: To mathivate students into actually loving math and wanting to learn more. And to come up with ways for students to not be afraid to move on and take another math class in school is another thing that gives me mathbumps and great joy. It’s work, but it can be done.
Q: When your students walk out of the classroom, what are your hopes and dreams for them?
Kim: I always tell students, “I am living my dream, so one day you will live yours.”
I had the honor of going to the White House last year where I met President Obama. While I was at the White House, I FaceTimed my students. I was running everywhere the Secret Service would let me go to show them every single thing. I was like, “I am here because of you guys.”
I had a picture with the President, and I enlarged it and put it outside my classroom. I tell my students, “When I was your age, are you kidding me, I never thought I’d meet the President. I never thought I’d be a State Teacher of the Year. So just serve passionately and you never know what things are ahead of you. This picture needs to remind you that there are things ahead of your life you can’t even think of, that’s how good they are.”
That’s my wish for them.
Q: What keeps you motivated and wanting to come back each year?
Kim: I love the connections with kids. I don’t know what would take me out. I honestly get teary eyed even thinking about not being in the classroom because I get so excited. Summer kills me. My own family is like, “When is school starting?” because I’m telling them all my mathilicious stories and things I’m thinking of doing with my kids.
If you stay excited and fresh, that helps you not burn out. It’s so much fun to watch a kid discover and learn. And meet them and get to know them and love them. They are my inspiration. They are the reason I’m there. That makes me never want to burn out because I would never want to disappoint them.