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Rutgers alumnus receives national award for teaching practices in mathematics

Ralph Pantozzi, Rutgers alumnus from the Graduate School of Education, teaches lessons and activities based on low-floor, high-ceiling questions.
Photo by Rutgers.eduRalph Pantozzi, Rutgers alumnus from the Graduate School of Education, teaches lessons and activities based on low-floor, high-ceiling questions.

Ralph Pantozzi, Rutgers alumnus from the Graduate School of Education (GSE), has recently received a national award for methods of effective mathematics teaching.

Pantozzi was 1 of 215 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers who received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2019, the highest honor from the White House. His success comes from his inclusive student-centered teaching methods.

“It starts with listening to the ideas that students bring to the classroom,” Pantozzi said. “Students bring a lot of ideas, some of which are correct the first time and some of which are not. But it's a teaching method I think that's built on trust that students can think for themselves.”

Pantozzi said he engaged with students’ ideas through lessons and activities based on low-floor, high-ceiling questions. He said everyone can answer these questions, but they provoke other questions that early-finishers can explore while others may get support. This approach accounts for variations in rates of learning.

Pantozzi said he credits his teaching approach to methods that he saw Rutgers professors use during his time as a student in GSE. Witnessing these methods firsthand in New Brunswick and Kenilworth, New Jersey, inspired him to learn more about teaching mathematics. 

Carolyn Maher, a distinguished professor of mathematics education in GSE, was one of his professors.

“I was impressed by his commitment and creativity,” Maher said. “He is a gifted teacher and educator.”

Pantozzi said two of the activities he used to illustrate mathematics concepts involved wrapping string around a parking lot and rolling toilet paper down a hallway.

“Starting with the activity like that makes quite a difference in contrast with starting with, ‘Okay, here. Today we're studying this equation, everybody excited about that?'” Pantozzi said. “Seeing math appear in all sorts of unexpected places also adds a sense of wonder to math.”

He said that it is important students finish the school year willing to revisit mathematics in the future and that appealing to their strengths is key. Some students are fast at calculating, while others are good at noticing patterns, following directions or finding new approaches to a problem, he said.

“Using methods that recognize that all students have talents is essential to learning the content that's there as well as their own self-image,” Pantozzi said. “If you’ve used methods that leave them once they’re done with their schooling saying, ‘Okay, here's what I achieved. Other people achieved more, other people achieved less perhaps. But I had a good experience and I would come back to it if I saw a need for it in the future,’ I think (that) is the real importance of using teaching methods like this.”

Pantozzi said students are now using mathematics in all kinds of fields, including biology, business, law and journalism. He said he believes more collaboration between the K-12 and college mathematics sectors could help students in their transition to college and beyond.

He said he was recently appointed to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and Mathematical Association of America Joint Committee on Mutual Concerns, formed to promote dialogue between the K-12 and college sectors. Pantozzi said the K-12 and the college realms are often too separate.

“What I would love to do is be able to be part of projects that involve individuals from both parts of the educational realm, and then build upon the unique knowledge that those who are in the classroom every day have and those who have the resources in the university to be able to put together,” Pantozzi said.

But, he says his main project is designing ways to empower girls in K-12 to identify as mathematicians. He is currently the mathematics department chair for Kent Place School, an all-girls school.

”Girls sometimes sell themselves short as to what they can accomplish in math,” he said. “This is changing (due to) the work of men and women and educators to show it matters for everybody. We're still in the stage where if you look up scientists, you see a lot of men, but it’s good that that's changing.”

Pantozzi said he has also been working to reduce inequity in mathematics education within the United States as part of the NCTM. They have been spreading awareness on the issue and creating models for lesson plans and curriculum for teachers who lack access to such resources.

Pantozzi said he and the New Jersey winners of the Presidential Awards are planning to spread awareness on the ideas discussed among all the award recipients by holding teacher workshops. They are also holding a webinar this week about training teachers for using effective methods. 

“There's sort of a message in the United States that good teachers are superheroes who can do amazing things every day, and that sort of scares people away,” Pantozzi said. “We want to encourage other educators or prospective educators to come into this profession and also help them see that teaching math can be quite fun.”

Mathematics teachers can bring joy as well as learning to the classroom, he said.

“That's a big part of what I want to do with having won this award,” Pantozzi said. “To continue to bring awareness that these things are possible, both for students and for prospective teachers.”