Liz Walsh is a creative teacher of math at The Howard School, which serves children with language-based learning differences and disabilities.
“Liz’s approach to teaching math concepts is amazing, compassionate and instills in our students an interest in numbers. She’s a real treasure,” said Nancy Davis, the school’s director of advancement.
Liz Walsh has been a teacher at The Howard School for 19 years, and an educator for over 25, formerly serving in the Peace Corps stationed in Tunisia.
The school is located in Atlanta’s Blandtown neighborhood, but over half of its students come from Buckhead, Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and Brookhaven.
Q: What drew you to teach at a school geared toward children with language-based learning differences and disabilities?
A: I have the privilege of working in a school where I never stop learning. I work with bright students who face challenges in language processing, memory, or executive functioning and they require me to be thoughtful about everything I teach. They push me to understand even the simplest mathematics in new ways as I consider what manipulatives might represent a concept, what images might best recall it, and what words most clearly describe it.
I am enriched by the collaborative, team-based approach to teaching students with learning differences. I work with speech-language pathologists, literacy specialists and psychologists, as well as gifted teachers, and I benefit constantly from their expertise as we share observations and discuss priorities.
Q: How does that change your approach to how you teach math?
A: Many of us got by in math classes because we had relatively intact language, memory, and attentional systems. What we didn’t understand, we memorized; we followed steps in order and plugged numbers into formulas. For students with learning disabilities, that might not be an option. As I teach math, I try to ensure the math is meaningful, the language is clear, and that students have tools for retrieving what they know.
Students who have difficulty sequencing the steps of a procedure must develop internal “self-talk” that they use to guide themselves through complex problems. I help students create consistent scripts they can use to remind themselves of how to start and what to do next.
Q: What keeps you going year after year?
A: What other field is brand new every day? Every child, every brain is different. I teach elementary mathematics, and each student I encounter pushes me to recognize that even a simple a problem like “12-4” demands a cascade of cognitive responses. For most of us, this processing happens automatically. For students with learning differences and disabilities, one or more of these understandings requires targeted instruction. Ascertaining the right approach for each child is both challenging and — when you find it — incredibly rewarding. Sharing that “ah-ha!” moment with a student brings me great joy.
Q: What do you hope students learn from you?
A: I want my young, neuro-diverse mathematicians to know that being “good” at math is not the same as being “fast” at math. I want them to learn that the correct answer, while important, is rarely the most interesting part of a math problem.
More generally, I want all my students to know that their own thinking is interesting, and that there is great satisfaction to be found in learning about how others think as well. I hope I can help students develop awareness of the ways they learn best and skills to create environments — including, when appropriate, enlisting the support of friends or adults — in which they are most successful.
Q: Do you have any special programs you use?
A: At The Howard School, we draw from many sources as we attempt to support diverse learners. Research in effective interventions for students with learning differences in mathematics lags far behind that for reading interventions, and we are constantly looking for better ways to reach students.
Q: What is your favorite memory at The Howard School?
A: Every day there are new favorite memories. Today’s came after a 9-year-old struggled through a two-step word problem, and finally, looking at his paper covered with erased numbers and sketches, smiled and said, “I am so good at math.”
Editor’s Note: Through our “Exceptional Educator” articles, Reporter Newspapers showcases the work of some of the outstanding teachers and administrators at our local schools. If you would like to recommend a teacher or administrator to be the subject of an Exceptional Educator article, please email editor@ReporterNewspapers.net.