Jennifer SpeerJames SpeerIn order for our students to progress, it’s important to cultivate an engaging learning environment that bolsters their efforts as they work toward their academic goals. Given their attractive and lively center with a warm, math-positive culture in place, it’s evident from the get-go that James and Jennifer Speer (Bryan-College Station, TX) are 100% invested in their students’ success. We’ll share their tips for creating an outstanding learning environment—from physical appearance to crafting productive student-teacher interactions—that promotes positivity and success and imparts a sense of accomplishment onto their students.

A Great Space for Learning

The Speers provide their students with an attractive, expansive Mathnasium-branded learning space that makes quite an impression. At Mathnasium of Bryan-College Station, “it’s not about the little things,” Jennifer says. “It’s the fact that you walk in and it’s such a big space. It makes an impact.”

“We have a pretty big center with 17-foot-high ceilings,” James explains. With bright lights and walls, and a giant A+ that’s the first thing you see when you walk in, the space “sets the right mindset for the kids.”

Bryan College Station Christmas

“When I talk to parents on the phone, I try to tell them what to expect when they send their child to Mathnasium,” Jennifer adds. “Sometimes, the kids won’t want to come in because what they’re expecting is [an environment that’s like school]. It’s not like that when you walk into our center. And every parent I’ve said this to has walked in and said, ‘Wow, you’re right. It’s big, it’s fun, and it’s open.’ You can see that students are working and that both kids and Instructors are having a good time.”

Staff Selection and Training

Bryan College Station APlus StudentAs you build the ideal learning environment, the people you hire will significantly impact the mood, tone, and energy level at your center. During the hiring process, the Speers try to pinpoint energetic, skilled Instructors who aren’t just good with math and with kids—they have to be fairly adept at explaining concepts, too. “When they come in for the interview, we’ll sit down together with their math literacy tests, and I’ll pick some questions and ask them how they got their answers,” Jennifer explains. “If they can’t explain properly to me how they did the problem, how are they going to explain it to a child? Can they actually explain or do they just say something along the lines of ‘I just knew how’? If they say the latter, [I do doubt] their ability to impart that knowledge onto a student.” As potential hires talk through their reasoning, “I like to see that they enjoy explaining math concepts. They have to really like teaching and math.”

“We also ask them some Larry-type questions, like ‘How do you explain to a third grader the meaning of the word half?’—questions that are a little different to throw them off balance, just to see how they react under a bit of pressure,” James adds.

Then, “we also have them do a trial session where they come in and shadow the Instructors, just so they can experience what it’s like here,” Jennifer continues. “After the trial, we’ll sit down in my office and I’ll ask them if they feel that [the center’s energy level] is something they can keep up with and enjoy doing.” James and Jennifer also have potential hires work with kids during these trial sessions—“we want to see, even before Mathnasium training, what their communication style is like. Are they more technical, or are they the type that likes to draw pictures? How does their style fit in with ours? Generally, we look for a variety of different teaching styles and personalities. Also, we can tell whether they’re set in their ways [regarding teaching styles and learning new ways of seeing math problems]. If they’re not willing to learn the Mathnasium way, then they’re definitely not a good fit and we won’t hire them!”

“The kids [these candidates worked with] usually tell us straight away what they thought of [the potential hire],” James adds. “Kids have really great intuition and usually their opinions fall in line with what we were thinking.”

James and Jennifer only hire individuals that demonstrate a knack for connecting with students, and as managers, emphasize the importance of this behavior regularly. They host staff meetings monthly, and each meeting includes training where the Speers and their staff review teaching techniques and discuss whether changes need to be made on the teaching floor. “At every staff meeting, we talk about what we can do to engage students,” says Jennifer. “If Instructors just sit there lecturing to students, students are going to zone out and they’re not going to get anything out of [the interaction]. Instructors need to have conversations with students. They should ask the kids questions and encourage student feedback and explanations. Some kids have never had these types of conversations with adults before, and they welcome these interactions, because they like it when adults listen to them.

“At our last staff meeting, we talked about slowing the kids down a little bit [when appropriate] and talking more about the problems on a completed page vs. just running on to the next page,” Jennifer continues. “We want to really interact with the students so they come away from the session with more [insight]. If all they do is work through problems [without interacting meaningfully with their Instructors], they don’t get as much out of the session.”

Bryan College Station RewardsInstructors at Mathnasium of Bryan-College Station ask questions that set the stage for quality student interactions such as “What strategy are we going to use to find the answer to this problem?” or “How do you think we should start solving this next problem?” Students receive extra punches on their punch cards for articulating concepts well (in addition to punches for each page completed), which sits well with students who are particularly motivated by the rewards system. “We also use games,” Jennifer adds. “For example, we’ve found that card games make great warm ups. They get the kids into a math mindset. We like bringing the element of fun into math.” Through instructional practices that stimulate teacher-student interaction, “Our goal is for the students to take away a little something each time they come—a sense that they’ve learned something new.”

Final Points

IMAG0441When parents enter Mathnasium of Bryan-College Station, “They immediately see that our center’s buzzing with activity,” says James. “And after a little bit, you can see exactly why. It’s because our Instructors are having conversations with the students, instead of just talking to them.” The center’s dynamic vibe, complemented by the Speers’ impressive center interiors, successfully shows parents and students that Mathnasium is a positive place where kids have the opportunity to reinvent the way they feel and approach math. As a result, James and Jennifer benefit greatly from new enrollments impressed by the uplifting environment and from students who love the Mathnasium learning experience returning again and again. Altogether, their center environment represents “all the confidence we have in our product,” James tells us. From the looks of things, parents and kids are clearly sold.

The Speers hope to replicate this environment when they open their second center next year.