Class of 2011: Rachel McAnallen

A UConn Ph.D. student is changing the culture of math – one teacher at a time.

As the University counts down to Commencement, UConn Today is featuring some of this year’s outstanding graduating students, nominated by their academic school or college or another University program in which they participated. For additional profiles of students in the Class of 2011, click here.

<p>Rachel McAnallen. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Rachel McAnallen, ED (Ph.D.), ’11. Photo by Peter Morenus

Rachel McAnallen is talking about mathematics, and she can’t stop smiling. She has just returned from Ethiopia, where she was teaching teachers how to teach math, and she’s a couple of days away from flying to Utah to – you guessed it – teach teachers to teach math.

McAnallen has taught teachers in all but six states, and has traveled to nearly a dozen other countries, including Canada, Hungary, Kuwait, Santo Domingo, and South Africa. Her goal is to help teachers make math fun.

Ms. Math, as she is known in educational circles, is also just days away from walking across the floor of the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion to accept a Ph.D. in educational psychology – at 75 years of age.

Retirement is not part of McAnallen’s lexicon. She had that chance years ago, after 25 years of teaching in what was then junior/senior high schools, but before she reached the magic numbers of age and years of service, she “got fed up with all the bureaucracy” and left classroom teaching, instead setting up shop as a “mathematician-in-residence.”

“Why not? There are artists-in-residence. Poets-in-residence. Why not mathematician-in-residence?” she says. “I wanted to teach the teachers. To go into a class and have the teachers watch me. It turned into a professional development program. You see, in the Ivory Tower you talk the talk, but teachers are leery of talk. They want to see it work. They’re skeptical of theory. They want to know ‘Can you do it?’”

McAnallen’s research while studying at the Neag School of Education for the past four years also convinced her that her skills were needed. Based on the results of a survey instrument she developed as part of that research, she discovered that 38 percent of the nearly 700 elementary school teachers who responded to the survey admitted to some form of math anxiety. Worse, nearly 70 percent of that group said they disliked math when they were in elementary school.

“There are common complaints about math classes,” McAnallen says. “Teachers move too fast, jumping to different problems before all the students understand the first one; students are afraid to ask questions; they’re teaching by rote, not even trying to make it interesting. Those are the things I’m trying to change.”

<p>Rachel McAnallen with origami models. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Rachel McAnallen, who will graduate May 7 with a Ph.D. in educational psychology, with origami models. McAnallen, whose dissertation focuses on reducing math anxiety among teachers, says she has about 40 books on origami. Her favorite shape features 240 triangles spun together. Photo by Peter Morenus

McAnallen decided to pursue the Ph.D. after hearing Sally Reis, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in Educational Psychology, make an impassioned speech during the annual Confratute summer program on enrichment learning and teaching. Two weeks later, while at another conference, colleagues encouraged her to do it.

“Oh, it’s been a great ride,” she says. “I love the learning process. I love the literature review. I loved just about every moment of it.”

Reis, for her part, loved every moment of working with McAnallen.

“Working with Rachel has been a joy,” she says. “She is an endless source of curiosity, enthusiasm, and questions, and each of these has been applied to her work on math anxiety and how it stifles teachers. To watch her learn how to answer the questions she has encountered during the last five decades in her research has brought all of our faculty tremendous satisfaction. Her creative journey has been a highlight of my career at UConn.”

In time, McAnallen hopes, her decades of research also will change the culture of how mathematics is taught across the globe, one teacher at a time, like the little girl throwing starfish back into the sea who was told her efforts didn’t matter because there were so many starfish dying. “It mattered to that one,” she said, tossing another into the water.

“I just got a message from one of my old students on Facebook, thanking me for being there,” McAnallen says, smiling. “That’s one.”