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It All Adds Up: Coaching Math Teams Helps Kids Reach Their Full Potential

In my 17 years as a math teacher and math team coach, I’ve often seen that the students who love math and want to learn more get less attention because, as the saying goes, “they’re doing fine on their own.” At a time when math is more critical than ever to the future of our country, we can’t take that approach.

These students yearn for challenge and every single one of them wants more. So it’s important that we harness that interest and nurture their talents through dedication and practice, just like high school sports do for athletes.

I approach coaching the math team no different than I would coach a sport. Just like most school sports, there are just a handful of spots for the many kids who try out. Hundreds of students show up for team tryouts, and we spend a few weeks running them through the types of problems they need to know how to do, like this one:

A building constructed in January of the year 2000 will celebrate its 1-month anniversary in February of 2000 and its 12-month anniversary in January of 2001. If during the year n this building will celebrate its n month anniversary, what is the value of n?

Try solving that under pressure, in front of lots of people. That’s what the kids work on throughout tryouts. By round three of the tryouts I know the 16 or so kids that could someday make my team.

Those kids meet with me up to 8 hours a week after school. We practice until 8:00 pm on Fridays, sharing a working pizza dinner. The camaraderie and competition grows. Everyone always knows how everyone else is doing. By the time we get to a competition, they’ve all faced pressure similar to the real thing.

When the biggest competition of the year rolls around, everyone is excited. At the Raytheon MATHCOUNTS National championship, the kids are nervous and feel a certain amount of pressure (I sure know I do). But all the practice pays off when they’re prepared to tackle the toughest problems.

Seventeen years in and I’ve coached teams that have won 14 state MATHCOUNTS competitions in two different states, two national Raytheon MATHCOUNTS champion teams and one individual national champion. My achievements as a coach are secondary, though.

Seeing what the students I’ve coached do with their lives years after is amazing. One student, Sara Campbell, got hooked on math early. She was on my team in New Hampshire in 2002 and competed nationally.

Sara ended up going to MIT and majoring in Physics. She’s now working on her Ph.D. in physics at JILA, a joint institute between the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado. Recently, her team built and demonstrated the world's most accurate atomic clock.

Knowing that students like Sara have reached their full potential and have incredibly productive lives and great careers ahead of them is the reason I started coaching 17 years ago and plan to keep at it. This year, I am proud to say that Massachusetts has another strong group of students that once again will vie for a top spot at nationals.

By Joshua Frost
Frost, a nationally recognized math coach, is a math teacher at the Jonas Clarke Middle School in Lexington, runs Frost Math at and coached the Massachusetts team at the Raytheon MATHCOUNTS National Championship on May 8 in Boston.

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