Know Your Teaching Team: The Role of Math Specialists in Education

If you’re a teacher who hates math, you aren’t alone. Many teachers get overwhelmed when they need to teach math. This can be especially problematic for elementary teachers who are required to teach the subject and can also be frustrating for non-math teachers at higher levels who want to incorporate STEAM concepts into their lessons.

This is where math specialists come in. Some guide teachers to improve their math lessons while others teach students directly as interventionists. A math specialist is a very diverse role for people who love math and want others — adults and children alike — to think it’s fun and exciting as well.

What Is a Math Specialist?

Depending on where you work, you might serve as a student-focused or teacher-focused math specialist. A student-focused specialist helps individual students catch up on key math concepts. A teacher-focused specialist helps educators better guide students through the material.

“The work of an elementary mathematics specialist takes many forms, including work with teachers and work with students,” writes the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “Work with teachers occurs one-on-one or within a grade-level team, in a space where teachers are safe to explore their teaching and deepen their understanding of mathematics content and pedagogy as well as their ability to responsively use high-quality instructional materials.”

A fifth-grade teacher might understand basic algebra but have a hard time explaining it to students in an engaging manner. The math specialist can work with that teacher to develop better lesson plans and explanations.

If you work in a school as a student-focused specialist, you might be part of a math intervention program to help specific learners catch up. Juliana Tapper, lead math consultant and founder of CollaboratEd, says there are four common math intervention programs that a school might offer.

Two include a pull-out program (where a student leaves the general math classroom and learns with a specialist) and a push-in program (where a math specialist attends class with a student and helps them better understand the material. Schools might offer one or several programs depending on student needs.

As a math specialist, you have to know where students are in the curriculum — both in their understanding of the material and what they will be learning in the future.

“I work closely with the core math class teachers to coordinate calendars and plan my math support class curriculum so that big ideas are taught two to three weeks before they’re taught in the core math class,” says Cheyanne Freitas, a high school math teacher and teacher leader.

“Preteaching provides a boost in student confidence as well as engagement, because students are seen as the experts in their core math class and can even be called upon to help other students.”

student alone in classroom writing at a desk; math specialists concept

Why Are Math Specialists Important?

Math specialists and interventions are crucial for helping students learn foundational math that they can use in other subjects. How can a student multiply fractions when they are still confused on fractions or don’t know their multiplication tables? How can they learn science concepts that use math if they are afraid of math?

“Researchers agree that elementary school math interventions are essential to avoiding later challenges,” writes research consultant Kenya Shujaa at Hanover Research. “Because math gets increasingly complex and abstract with each grade level, detecting and addressing math difficulties early on is critical to building positive learning experiences and eliminating future struggles.”

These foundational elements continue into the higher grades, as students learn algebra and geometry and prepare for advanced math. It’s a key time for students to develop a love for math, which will affect their future career aspirations based on what skills they think they have.

“What skills kids learn in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade are really foundational and heavy,” says Mary Pittman, director of mathematics at TNTP, a national nonprofit founded by teachers that helps school systems end educational inequality. “Those grade levels are a big deal and they’re also probably the mathematics that most adults recognize.”

This is why you will see math specialists and interventionists in the middle and high school grade levels. Even if a math teacher has been leading classrooms for decades, they can still learn new ways to connect with students.

“As a teacher, I was determined to empower my students to feel confident in math,” says Stephanie Fitzpatrick, a coach development manager at e-learning provider Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “I wanted them to engage in mentally stimulating activities and ensure they had what they needed to succeed. With the support of a math instructional coach, I was able to transform my teaching to ensure my students left my math classroom with a passion for math.”

frustrated student leans head against blackboard; math specialists concept

Math Specialist Qualifications and Certifications

Math specialists usually start out as teachers, completing the required educational, licensing and training requirements to enter the classroom. This gives them experience working with students and guides interventionists to their passions of helping other teachers and students grow their math skills.

“While gaining experience as a classroom teacher is not required to become a math interventionist, it is highly recommended,” says career coach Martin Yate, author of the “Knock ‘Em Dead” series of career books. “Working as a classroom teacher allows you to develop the skills needed to work with students of all ages and abilities. You also learn how to manage a classroom and interact with parents and school administrators.”

If you already have classroom experience, you may be ready to advance your education to become a math specialist. More colleges and universities are offering programs to help teachers step into these roles. They want to find people who are willing to learn and develop key skills that they can bring back to the classroom.

“I think it’s really about finding the people who are passionate about mathematics in elementary schools and supporting their endeavor to become coaches and interventionists, so they can focus on mathematics in their schools,” says Amber Candela, an associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “That’s really going to support the school because you have that expertise that schools traditionally haven’t had.”

Math Specialist Income

Math specialists earn slightly more than traditional teachers. Their added education and specialized skills can help them obtain a higher salary, and demand in certain areas for these interventionists might be higher than in others.

According to Glassdoor, the average salary for an instructional math coach is $52,980 per year. The most likely range falls between $46,000 and $71,000 annually. However, some instructional coaches can earn up to $86,000 per year in parts of the United States. This likely depends on the cost of living where you are located and the type of school you teach at.

You can see how math specialist salaries compare to general teacher salaries in your area by checking the National Educational Association (NEA). The starting teacher salary for 2020-2021 was $41,770 on average. The NEA breaks this data down by state and the education level of the teacher. For example, the starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Montana is $32,495 but for teachers in Washington with a master’s degree, it’s $60,253.

Certain education trends might drive the salaries of math specialists higher in coming years. Many states continue to prioritize STEAM education with a focus on math and engineering. Their budgets might open up to bring on more math interventionists.  

“Today’s call for STEM- and STEAM-based curriculum has accelerated demand for teachers proficient in math and science subjects at grade school levels,” says Eric Gill at the Resilient Educator. He reports that federal recommendations encourage schools to add math specialists to elementary schools, either as full-time teachers or as math coaches for teachers.

smiling teacher holds up flashcard of math equations; math specialists concept

Demand for Math Specialists

The need for math specialists in schools isn’t only driven by a desire to focus on STEAM education. Many districts are worried about the math competencies of students following the remote learning period during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If 2020-21 was a nosedive, we’ve at least pulled out of it,” says Karyn Lewis, director of the Center for School and Student Progress at Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). “But we still have a lot of altitude to regain, if you will, to get us back to that place where kids are at the achievement level where we want them to be.”

One district in Ohio recently added a math specialist to each of the 16 elementary and five middle schools in the area. The goal is for these specialists to help teachers improve their instruction, especially as they are asked to introduce data and math-heavy concepts to younger students.

“Their job is to make teachers even more effective,” says Dr. Jack Fette, chief academic officer of the Olentangy school district. “They will share lesson planning, go over data with teachers and observe or assist in classrooms. Having a math specialist in the building will help our teachers not just with traditional mathematics, but things that are now a part of that curriculum, like data science, statistics and computer science.”

Improving test scores and core competencies is important, but the main goal of any math educator is to instill a love of the subject in students. When learners are excited about math, they stop approaching it with fear and can embrace their inner curiosity.

“If students are actually engaged in the assessment or engaged in the mathematical task or engaged in the instruction that they’re receiving, they have a positive math identity and they see themselves as a part of it, not a passive recipient of it,” says Tammy Baumann, vice president of academic services at NWEA. “So that’s what we’re aiming for.”

The role of a math specialist is important and can make a long-lasting impact on math teachers and their students. If you’re a math teacher who is really excited about the subject, you may be perfect as a specialist.

Images by: andreaobzerova/©, dolgachov/©, jeswinthomas, Joshua Hoehne.