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Who do students count on when they need support learning math?

Math specialists build foundational skills one grade level at a time


picture of math specialist Michele Deguire

During a recent professional development day, math specialist Michele Deguire, center, worked with other elementary school teachers to learn about innovative ways to use Ozobot technology in classrooms to teach programming, math and science concepts.

Watervliet Elementary School has two math specialists: Michele Deguire and Heidi Waldron. Both were elementary classroom teachers before stepping into the role of math specialist. Similar to the school’s reading specialists who provide support to struggling readers, the math specialists offer support to students from kindergarten through grade 6 who are having difficulty mastering math skills. (Learn some fun facts about math specialists Michele Deguire and Heidi Waldron, click on their names in this paragraph to link to a short Q&A.)

Mrs. Deguire and Mrs. Waldron have two specific goals: to provide support for students who are experiencing difficulty mastering math skills and to make learning math a fun experience.

They work closely with students who are in need of additional help as identified through data such as test scores, teacher recommendations and other progress monitoring measurements. They say a common misconception is that instructional support for math is provided only to students in grades 3-6 because the state assessments are administered at those grade levels.

“That is not the case. From the day they walk through the school doors, be it kindergarten or UPK for that matter, students are preparing themselves to be successful for any subject, not just math,” said Mrs. Waldron. “If we don’t start in the lower grades then students won’t conquer the fundamental math skills, they are going to struggle and they are not going to do well.”

What does a math specialist do?

Every school day, the math specialists can be found in classrooms working with small groups of students for 30 minutes during the regular 60-minute math block. The specialists provide different strategies or teach alternative ways for learning math concepts that are being presented that day.

picture of WES math specialists

Want to know some fun facts about math specialists Michele Deguire and Heidi Waldron? Scroll below for a short Q&A.

Mrs. DeGuire mostly works with students in the primary grades (K-2), while Mrs. Waldron spends much of her time working with students in grades 3-6.

“We try to build their skills by re-teaching the concepts in different ways that students can understand better,” said Mrs. Waldron. “Sometimes, it just helps to be working in a small group with more focused attention.”

The math specialists agree that working in smaller groups of no more than six or seven students is best because it makes it easier to identify which concepts are most challenging for students.

Mrs. Deguire and Mrs. Waldron also work with students outside the 60-minute math block, as the schedule allows. This time is focused more on supporting and building the foundational skills necessary for success at each grade level, including math facts and number sense.

“In each grade, the learning depends on the grade before,” said Mrs. Deguire. “Students are expected, for example, to walk into fourth grade and know their multiplication facts. If they don’t know those facts, they are going to have difficulty with math at that level.”

The math specialists also emphasize with students the importance of showing their work, so that even if they don’t arrive at the correct answer, they can still receive partial credit.

“Even in the primary grades, it’s important,” said Mrs. Deguire. “I might ask a kindergarten or first-grader to draw a picture that goes along with a math problem because it shows an understanding of the process, but often times the younger students want to skip that because it means more work.”

Mrs. Waldron added it’s no longer just about right or wrong answers, but the approach students are using and if it is correct. “If they’ve got all the right mechanics there, but didn't get the right answer, maybe because they multiplied wrong, they won’t get full credit but they will get some credit for the everything else being right.”

Providing ExTRA support

The math specialists provide support to students participating in Watervliet’s grant-funded ExTRA program. Kindergarten through grade 2 students attend a before-school program two mornings per week, and grades 3-6 students attend the after-school program three days per week to build their math and English language arts skills.

Mrs. Deguire and Mrs. Waldron also serve as a resource for their colleagues in the classroom  by sharing best practices and learning strategies with teachers, and supporting parents by answering questions about math instruction and offering tips that families can use to support math learning at home though fun activities using i-Pads, dice, cards, and other items that may be available.

“I think the more students have fun with it, the more they will learn and retain,” said Mrs. Deguire. “We want them to love math.”

In the end, the most important objective for the math educators is seeing improvement and supporting student success.

Our ultimate goal is that students can be independent in their own learning and they can work through problems using strategies and thinking skills and anything that they can bring in to help them solve a problem,” said Mrs. Waldron. “I want every one of my students to leave here and be able to solve a math problem – or any problem for that matter – and be able to do it with good reasoning skills, thinking skills and without any assistance.”

meet the Math specialists

Want to know what careers the math specialists dreamed of pursuing when they were in elementary school, or if they prefer peanut M&Ms to the plain variety? The answers to those and other questions are below.


Michele Deguire

bullet graphicPlain or peanut M&M’s? Peanut

bullet graphicWhat is your favorite thing about being a reading teacher? My favorite thing is when my students get excited about getting the right answer!

bullet graphicCoffee or tea? Coffee, (iced) not hot.

bullet graphicFavorite color? Green.

bullet graphicWhen you were in elementary school, what did you dream of being when you grew up? A teacher because of my favorite fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Fuller.


Heidi Waldron

bullet graphicPlain or peanut M&M’s? Peanut.

bullet graphicWhat is your favorite thing about being a reading teacher? When students get excited about getting the correct answers.

bullet graphicCoffee or tea? Coffee, definitely!

bullet graphicFavorite color? Purple.

bullet graphicWhen you were in elementary school, what did you dream of being when you grew up? Probably something to do with sports. I was a tomboy.. (But, I really can't remember that far back.)