Excellence in Teaching
University of New Hampshire at Manchester

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Roberta Kieronski
Assistant Professor of Mathematics



The trick to teaching mathematics is knowing how not to do it.

Roberta Kieronski learned that during her junior year in high school when the teacher consistently left a student standing at the blackboard, unable to solve the problem.

“I was always getting caught trying to help that last one left standing,” she remembers with a laugh. Although she tutored other students on the side and was the first student in her high school to break 700 on the mathematics part of the SAT tests, the chance to try teaching in her senior year cinched it. “That was it. I was going to be a math teacher.”

Almost 40 years later, Kieronski is sharing her expertise as an assistant professor of mathematics and working hard to dispel negative attitudes about the subject she says is as important as knowing how to read.

“I always think about the person who is trying to learn. On the first day of every class, I tell my students they don’t have to raise their hands, and that I’ll only call on them if they do raise their hands.”

Being able to do mathematics is not enough to be a mathematics teacher, she says. You have to be able to explain why. “I had a professor who used to say things were ‘intuitively obvious,’ which I finally determined meant he could not explain it.”

This year is not the first time Kieronski has been recognized for excellence in the classroom. She won the award in 1987, the first year it was presented, and didn’t think she was eligible to win a second time. What made it even more of an honor this time, she adds, was that a faculty group of past winners nominated her, “people who know what it’s like to be in the classroom.

“I really love to be in the classroom,” she continues. “I do think my strength is more in working with students. I can’t do the work for them, but I can assist a student who is stuck. We sit down and I have them explain what they’re thinking and see if I can find the one little thing holding them back.”
She also teaches a basic arithmetic class at the University’s Manchester campus, and never labels a problem easy because every student has areas of weakness and strength. And when she teaches finite mathematics for liberal arts students, she looks for ways to show her students how the subject is relevant to their lives. All in the name of eliminating math anxiety.

Kieronski believes everyone can learn mathematics, but that they have to be taught the way that works for them. She sees it as her job to constantly discover different ways to present the same material.

She actually requires students in her classes to have a graphing calculator. “Isn’t this great?” she asks, eager to open her bottom desk drawer and whip one out for a demonstration.

“We allow ourselves to think that it’s okay not to be good in mathematics, but we’re the only nation that thinks that way. No one says ‘I can’t read,’ but it’s perfectly okay to say ‘I’ve never been good in math.’ People have to be more aware of mathematics and what it does in their lives. Even if you’re an English major, you still want to understand a profit, how to pay bills, and how to read a workperson’s estimate.”

Or—on the personal side of the ledger—to figure out how long it will take she and her husband, Joseph, to see a game in every major league baseball stadium in the United States and Canada. Ten down, how many to go?

—Erika L. Mantz,
UNH News Bureau