Recently awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) for the U.S. territories, Dora Borja Miura Ph.D. (B'94) wants to change not only the way students are learning math in the classroom, but also how teachers are learning to work with students and fellow faculty.
The 7th-12th grade teacher initially aspired to become a school administrator and got into teaching as a pathway to understanding the teachers she hoped to one day lead.
"I planned to go into education administration and majored in business as an undergraduate at Georgetown. When I went to grad school, though, I realized that in order to truly be a good administrator, I needed to better understand the teachers," she said.
So, Miura fell in love with teaching the year after completing graduate school, when she began teaching in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) Public School System. She decided to continue as a teacher herself, instead of moving into administration. She has now been an educator for more than 20 years and has spent the last seven years teaching high school geometry, pre-algebra and advanced algebra at Saipan Southern High School. She is also the 2016 CNMI Teacher of the Year.
Meeting students "where they are"
Miura's philosophy on education is student centered and teacher driven. "I believe the onus is on the teacher to motivate kids and get them excited about learning. It's on us to help the kid find their place in the world," she said. She shares this philosophy with fellow faculty members through her research in ethnomathematics (the study of the relationship between mathematics and culture), which specifically focuses on the students of the CNMI.
Her dedication to improving programs and processes that help both students and teachers can be seen in the programs she's launched and nurtured community-wide. Her daily lunch time and after school peer tutoring groups engage struggling students with student leaders in an effort to improve mathematical understandings, while the monthly mathematics competitions she helped launch aim to instill a love of mathematics in the students of CNMI.
"I believe in a discovery-based approach to learning. You have a general plan, standards and benchmarks, but the kids really drive the learning."
"I got involved with some forensics competitions for the kids in level K-6. I enjoyed it and decided to create something similar for math," said Miura. The competitions have since been implemented statewide, with about 700 competitors in the elementary competition each year. "We recently branched out to a second island [in the Northern Mariana Islands school system] and will soon be adding a third island as well," she said.
Infusing more science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning into the students' everyday learning can have a huge impact on their future careers. Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, explains, "STEM provides the most career choices for people both immediately after school and at mid-career. STEM majors have the highest earnings among bachelor's degree holders: sixty-five percent of those with STEM B.A.s earn more than people with a master's degree in non-STEM occupations. Similarly, 47 percent of bachelor's degrees in STEM occupations earn more than those with Ph.D.s in non-STEM occupations."
"I believe in a discovery-based approach to learning," said Miura. "You have a general plan, standards and benchmarks, but the kids really drive the learning. Many of my lessons revolve around that concept and I am always trying to include more STEM-related activities in my curriculum."
Changing the path of learning for teachers
Miura loves teaching for now, but continues work to improve processes and relationships with fellow faculty and school administration. After obtaining her undergraduate degree from Georgetown, she went on to get both a master's in education administration and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Her extensive training and experience has prepared her for the work of closing the gap between how instructors are teaching and how kids can best learn at their own levels.
"Many people in education—both administrators and teachers—struggle with that idea of meeting the kids where they are. I'd like to accelerate the growth for high school math so that they can succeed," she explained. "I have some students who have repeated algebra a few times. Trying to meet them at their level and help them find something they like about math can make them feel like they really can do this."
Miura would also like to see schools in her area develop a teacher leadership path, a form of instructional leadership for those who wouldn't necessarily become administrators, but who want to continue improving as instructors.
"It helps to have someone who's in the classroom and also mentoring other teachers. Working with them, and not just mentoring at a superficial level," she said. "Many teachers want to differentiate instruction, to excite their kids, but they don't know how. With many of our classes enrolling as many as 41 students, it is tough to fit it all in, but I'd like to see that change."