Education faculty Alan Zollman extols mentorship at national conference

10th March 2016

By Steven Krolak (NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Last week Alan Zollman, IU Southeast associate professor of secondary education, delivered the Founders Lecture at the annual conference of the Research Council on Mathematics Learning in Orlando, Fla.

Established in 1974, the RCML provides a professional growth and development forum for mathematics educators at all levels.

“The Founders Lecture was added to the annual conference beginning in 2009 as a way to give perspective on the past research knowledge base of the RCML to the present and future goals of current members,” said Zollman, a past vice president of the organization.

Zollman, whose focus since joining the faculty of the School of Education at IU Southeast has been strengthening teacher education in mathematics, used the occasion of the lecture to shed light on the virtues of mentoring—not just for students, but for professor as well.

Mentoring the mentor

The benefits of mentoring for students are generally accepted, Zollman said, citing IU Southeast Center for Mentoring Director June Huggins’ statistics to demonstrate that high school students who received mentoring are more likely to be enrolled in college, participate in sports, hold leadership positions, volunteer, stay enrolled and graduate.

But what of the benefits for teachers and colleagues? Surely the need for guidance and context does not end upon graduation.

In fact, for Zollman it is especially relevant for educators, who embark on a lifelong journey full of ups and downs. Over the course of a career, intellectual sustenance and personal encouragement are increasingly important in order for that career to be successful, effective and personally rewarding.

Mentorship also can benefit the mentor.

Drawing from the insights of Erik Erikson’s psycho-social development model, in which later adulthood can be a time of stagnation and even despair, Zollman explored the idea that supporting the next generation of scholars might restore a sense of purpose and fulfillment for educators needing rejuvenation.

Dissertations on cocktail napkins

The lecture provided the sort of innovative inflection that characterizes Zollman’s work and career.

Prior to arriving at IU Southeast less than two years ago, Zollman had spent 21 years on the faculty of Northern Illinois University, where he chaired the mathematical sciences teacher education program. Before that, he was assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Kentucky, where he chaired the middle school certification program and was the founding president of the Kentucky Association of College Mathematics Educators. He has contributed to over 40 international and national publications at the top of his field.

But he has also worked in the field, teaching middle school in New Albany, Ind. and high school in Ghana, West Africa, as a Peace Corps volunteer.

At IU Southeast, Zollman has worked with School of Education colleagues Drs. Bradford Griggs and David Losey to develop a co-teaching model, a collaborative approach that fundamentally changes the way teacher candidates work with their supervising teachers during their student teaching year.

Through his teaching and publications, Zollman has consistently placed human relationships at the center of his work. In analyzing efforts to boost the teaching of STEM fields, for example, Zollman has stressed the need to see STEM fields not as a series of boxes to be checked off in a curriculum, but to use STEM literacy for learning in order to satisfy societal, economic and personal needs.

This human touch is perfectly at home in the RCML, a focused research group with a history of supporting PhD students and new faculty in a collegial, non-stressed environment where they can present and more or less “workshop” their research-in-progress.

He has always used cocktail napkins as an informal note-pad, encouraging PhD candidates to sketch out a question they think worthy of a dissertation.

“I push the students to see if this is a burning question to them, or just a topic they feel is researchable,” Zollman said. “We then edit the topic to become the ‘song in their hearts they need to sing’ to other researchers.”

Zollman issues the same challenge to freshman and sophomore education students at IU Southeast – sans napkins — inspiring them to find “the song they need to sing” by asking them to imagine themselves as the Secretary of Education with complete control of the educational apparatus on the U.S. What would they do?

Finding the song isn’t just a metaphor. It’s a foundational truth that binds what people do with who they are. As such, it helps teachers recognize their own reasons for entering, and remaining committed to, the profession.

A win-win

In his Founders Lecture, Zollman went back to the cocktail napkins. Audience members were asked to write their expectations as mentees on the napkins, to share their jottings with five other people with similar napkins, and eventually share with the group. Later they repeated the process, sharing what they hoped to get out of being a mentor.

“The idea is that mentorship is a win-win for both mentee and mentor,” Zollman said.

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