By Katie Doolittle
“We, the Olympia High School Community, are dedicated to personal excellence and responsible citizenship.” Their mission statement, communicated so clearly on the school’s website and welcome banner, is so much more than mere text. It’s a tangible attitude that permeates the hallways and classrooms of OHS, a commitment to multi-faceted and quality education demonstrated by staff and students alike.
Much like her school community at large, math teacher Cindel Tobias is not the type to content herself with resting on her (considerable) laurels. She approaches the challenges of teaching with great gusto, relishing opportunities for reflection and growth. It’s therefore no surprise that this thoughtful and committed teaching dynamo has been named The Evergreen State College’s 2015 Distinguished Educator of the Year.
This annual award seeks to honor a TESC alumnus who’s made a significant contribution to the field of education. Tobias has certainly done so, promoting continual growth for her school, her colleagues, her students, and herself.
It’s no small feat for a busy professional with three preps on her course load. Tobias teaches geometry, algebra, and math support—the latter being an extra intervention for students who struggle with the subject matter. As OHS principal Matt Grant notes, “One would think that students might resent this placement but most look at this class as a favorite. For many, this is their first successful math experience in school. Cindel champions those students who need it most. That is in part because she develops such a strong relationship with her students where they feel a sense of respect and belonging.”
Tobias also seeks to foster strong relationships between students. Her pupils sit in groups, collaboratively problem-solving and, when appropriate, encountering mathematical phenomena through authentic discovery. For example, geometry students recently worked together to find the surface area of a 3D shape. Tobias describes how groups were “asking questions and noticing patterns and essentially coming up with the formulas the textbook provides without me even telling them.”
Part of Tobias’s effectiveness stems from the fact that she openly acknowledges and addresses the common misconception that math ability is inherent and unchangeable. “I start off by telling students regularly that they are all capable of being successful in math,” says Tobias.
This isn’t just her opinion; it’s a factual statement based on psychological research that she shares with her students each September. Tobias elaborates: “I have students read a Carol Dweck article that talks about ‘fixed’ mindsets versus ‘growth’ mindsets. We have discussions about what a growth mindset is and how this type of thinking can actually influence your success when the going gets tough.”
People with growth mindsets view themselves as works in progress. They believe that abilities, intelligence, and character traits can all be diligently developed. It’s no surprise that growth-mindset students make more progress than those who stubbornly insist “I’m just not good at math.”
To promote a growth mindset, students need to relish challenge. This requires an atmosphere of trust, which is one of the reasons Tobias focuses so heavily on class climate. She says, “I think relationship building among students helps them feel more comfortable to ask questions and also reminds them that everyone gets problems wrong, everyone has questions, and that mistakes are okay (and sometimes really helpful at highlighting deeper misconceptions we might be holding).”
Clearly, Tobias is teaching so much more than math in her classroom. A growth mindset isn’t just about trouncing 9th grade algebra; it’s a whole philosophical outlook with huge implications for college, career, and general life readiness.
Not surprisingly, Tobias herself demonstrates the attitudes, work ethic, and habits associated with the growth mindset. She is an excellent model of lifelong learning for students, constantly reflecting on her professional efficacy. “As a teacher you are the ultimate researcher. I have 133 students I am regularly trying mini-experiments on every day. You try something in class, it works or doesn’t. It may work for some students but not others. Why? If you change just one thing about it does it work then or does it need a complete overhaul?”
Tobias’s influence extends far beyond the walls of her classroom. She’s worked with TOGETHER Thurston County to promote student leadership in health education, helped lead the school’s LGBQTI Advisory Council, and played a pivotal role in the leadership team that developed what Grant calls “a groundbreaking Restorative Justice program in our school.”
In fact, Tobias is such a tireless advocate for student success that she’s already working on new opportunities for next year. She hopes to join several other Olympia High School teachers in piloting a freshman academy for incoming students.
Grant perfectly sums up Tobias’s energetic impact when he states, “As a principal, I am eager for our teachers to make learning more engaging, more contextual and more relevant while supporting their colleagues and students in programs both inside and outside the classroom. Cindel models a lead-by-example and champion-for-all attitude that we promote here at Olympia High School.”