Focus on Faculty
Denise Spangler, the Bebe Aderhold Professor in Early Childhood Education and head of the department of mathematics and science education, strives to create a classroom environment that is challenging yet nurturing.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I have a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in mathematics from Illinois State University. My doctoral degree is from the University of Georgia in mathematics education. I am currently a professor of mathematics education and head of the department of mathematics and science education in the College of Education.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in 1991 to go to graduate school because my master’s thesis adviser had gotten her doctorate here and told me this was the best place in the country to study mathematics education. I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to experience UGA from both sides of the desk.
What are your favorite courses and why?
My favorite courses to teach are mathematics methods courses for early childhood education majors. It is so important that children receive good mathematics instruction in the elementary grades, and I love working with future teachers to try to make that happen. So often my students have had negative experiences with mathematics in their past schooling, but by learning why certain things work the way they do in math (such as why you invert and multiply to divide fractions) and understanding how to help children learn these ideas in a meaningful way, many of my students have a complete change of attitude about mathematics. They often start their teacher education program scared of teaching math but leave the program excited about it.
What interests you about your field?
Mathematics plays a gatekeeper role in so many ways in our society, and I am intrigued by the various ways we can change that and help people see themselves as more competent mathematically. There are many ways to do that, such as curriculum development and out-of-school activities, but the approach I take is to help future teachers see themselves and their students as mathematically capable. Because I work with future elementary school teachers, I am interested in stopping the problem before it starts.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
The biggest highlight of my career is just being here. The fact that I get to count my former professors as my colleagues and friends is a great honor.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
Because I conduct research on the very thing I teach, my teaching and research are inextricably intertwined and inspire each other. I am constantly challenged to use what I learn from my research to improve my teaching and to take an inquisitive approach to my teaching to better understand my students.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I strive to create a classroom environment that is at the same time challenging and nurturing because I want students to learn to articulate what they think about a topic (whether it is research, assessment, teaching, national standards or some other topic of study), why they think this, what others (peers and scholars) think about the same topic and why, and the similarities and points of departure between their views and the views of others. In other words, I want students to have informed ideas to take with them and to know how to continue to refine those ideas and how to evaluate new ideas.
Describe your ideal student.
The ideal student has genuine intellectual curiosity, which means she/he is open-minded and reflective, willing to listen to and seriously consider other points of view, willing to share his/her point of view, and open to reshaping his/her views when warranted. I cannot possibly teach future teachers everything they will need in order to teach math in pre-K through fifth grade, so it is essential that they be genuinely curious so that they will continue to learn throughout their careers and so that they will willingly delve into students’ thinking.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
I love to walk the D.W. Brooks Mall. When I first came to UGA it was a street. Now that it is a green space, it is a beautiful place to walk (with a stop at the Creamery) and enjoy the campus.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
Exercise, read and travel.
Community/civic involvement includes….
I am currently serving my third term on the Clarke County School District Board of Education. I have learned so much about what it takes to run a school district and have met so many wonderful people along the way.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
My favorite book of recent years is “Memoirs of an Unexpected Life,” the autobiography of Queen Noor of Jordan. She was born Lisa Halaby in the U.S., was in the first class of women admitted to Princeton, where she studied architecture, and then worked abroad in Australia and Iran. She left Iran when the shah was deposed and on her way back to New York to go to graduate school, passed through Jordan, met King Hussein and eventually married him. The story of how a strong, independent American woman became a queen in an Islamic country and how she used her talents to advance the plight of women there, while adhering to Islamic customs, is fascinating to me, particularly in these times when there is so much international attention focused on the Middle East.
Proudest moment at UGA?
My proudest moments at UGA are hooding doctoral students at graduation and when I hear from former students. Our students are doing many great things in the world of education around the globe, which gives me confidence and hope for the future.
(Originally published Sept. 15, 2013)