Spotlight: Laura Cole (KY '19)May 1, 2020
Many students come into Laura Cole’s class convinced they’ll never be good at math. She makes building their confidence and gaining their trust mission one: “I don’t give up on them—and they know that.” Laura won Kentucky’s 2019-20 Milken Award at Scott High School in Taylor Mill on February 26, 2020.
Milken Family Foundation: Are there hurdles to building students’ self-confidence when it comes to math?
Laura Cole (KY ’19): The biggest hurdle is students who believe that they have never been good at math and will never be able to do it. They also have adults in their lives who say they cannot do math or never understood it. That sets students up to believe they will never get it—so why try?
I try to start small and give students little ways to feel smart and build confidence in their math skills. I also try to build them up and let them know that I care and will help them along the way. Once the students gain a little confidence and trust in me, then I can raise the bar of expectations. Sometimes it can be really hard to undo their years of hating math, but I don’t give up on them—and they know that.
MFF: What do you like about high school students?
Laura: So many things. They are smart and insightful. I learn something new about math every day because they think about things in a different way. I also think some high school students are very misunderstood and just need a chance to be loved. Once students build confidence they become different people. I love seeing this evolution into successful adults.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Laura: I always loved math in school and became a teacher to my brother and friends at a young age, so it just fit. While I was in college, I saw how underrepresented women were in math and computer science classes. That was my inspiration to teach high school math and encourage smart women to stay in STEM.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Laura: I was in Mississippi, far from family and friends. The community of math teachers took me in and mentored me, especially Anita Llewelyn. They became my family and I learned a lot about collaboration and different teaching methods. The principal was also very supportive. I remember working very long hours because I would have to (re)teach myself the math that I would be teaching the students the next day—it had been so long since I had done that level of math. That was very frustrating. I learned to think about math in a different way and see it through the students’ eyes. Overall, I had a great first year of teaching because of the amazing teachers around me.
MFF: You spend a lot of time working with other teachers to help them improve their instruction. Why is this an important role?
Laura: I have always loved being part of a team and working with others toward a common goal. I am personally always working to be a better teacher, and collaboration with other teachers helps me achieve that goal. I think I learn more from others than they learn from me. Teaching with a team—or “family,” as we call it in our math department—is way more fun, too.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Laura: Debbie Hecky chaired the math department at the school where I now teach and was also my first-year teacher mentor in the Kentucky Teacher Internship Program. She was at the end of her career when I was at the beginning of mine—she had so much to teach me. How to build a department around collaboration. How to create learning opportunities that are student-centered. How to be a lifelong learner as an educator.
Debbie was inspiring! There were so many new things being thrown at us in the first couple years I taught in Kentucky, like Common Core and the requirement that all students take math through Algebra 2. We also implemented new teaching methods from the Math Design Collaborative through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Through all of this change, Debbie worked really hard to lead and teach the rest of the department without complaining and with a positive outlook. She could easily have resisted change and finished her years doing the same old thing, but she didn’t.
The other person who has inspired me to become a teacher leader and education coach is Jenny Barrett, our district high school math consultant. She has pushed me to self-evaluate, present at conferences, videotape my classes, and lead others through her leadership and expertise.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Laura: I was in total shock and could not believe that this could happen to me. There are so many teachers at my school who deserved this Award. I am honored that it was me. I kept saying, “It’s not me”—and then they said my name, just like in a movie!
I hugged people while walking down to the front of the stage but I don’t remember much. Once I was down in front, I just kept smiling and shaking my head “no” because I could not believe that it was me. I also remember catching the eye of colleagues and students who were so excited and happy for me. That made me feel so good. Then the news cameras descended on me and I was interviewed by several news stations. I finally asked if I could call my husband. I still don’t believe it!
MFF: How did your students react to your Milken Award surprise?
Laura: My students were so excited and proud. Current students and former students continue to congratulate me. I did not get a chance to see my classroom until the afternoon. My morning classes left messages and hashtags all over my board, including inside jokes. I felt so loved when reading the messages and did not want to erase it … but I did take a lot of pictures!
MFF: Any plans for your $25,000?
Laura: I want to use some of it to invest in my children’s educational future and start saving for their college tuition.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Laura: Success for me is knowing that I have empowered students in their thinking and learning, both in math and emotionally. It’s different for students. For example, for a high-level thinker, success is getting them to think about the topic in a different way, extending their learning or turning them into a teacher. In a student who is struggling with trauma, just building their confidence enough so they are willing to put a problem up on the board would be a huge success!
MFF: What lessons do you hope your students take away from their time with you?
Laura: I hope that they know that I care about them as people, and also that I think that they are smart and can do math.
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