The classroom’s old wooden floor boards creak under Sarah (Hagan) Carter feet as she paces back and forth with her smart marker, drawing slopes and intercepts on a screen. Late in the afternoon at Drumright High School, she’s teaching with as much fervor and energy as she did her first session of the morning, enthusiastic while facilitating open discussion. A 2012 graduate of TU’s mathematics and education programs, Carter is in her sixth year of teaching at a small, rural high school in central Oklahoma in an aged facility built more than a century ago. Resources are sparse, and many of the students are underprivileged, but Carter wouldn’t have it any other way. Her personal blog about teaching, Math=Love, has millions of views, and she was named one of the “50 Great Teachers” by National Public Radio’s education team in 2015.
Learn more about the TU Department of Mathematics.
Carter’s classroom is an experience and the exact opposite of a stereotypical math learning environment. Inspirational quotes and mathematical equations illustrated in bright, vibrant colors are taped to the walls and hang from the ceiling. Signs read “Mistakes help me improve,” and “Find what you love. Do more of that.” Storage bins brimming with supplies she uses in creative math puzzles and games are stacked in every corner of the room. It’s so cozy and comfortable that students want to be here. Carter’s advanced math class consisted of five or six students her first year of teaching. A total of 22 enrolled in 2015.
“More kids are willing to try the advanced classes now,” Carter said. “It’s been a gradual process seeing students progress now that I’ve taught these seniors all four years.”
Growing up in Coweta, Oklahoma, Carter dreamed of becoming a teacher. In fact, she compiled a list of all her favorite school activities to one day incorporate them into her own classroom. In high school, math wasn’t Carter’s favorite, but she was good at it.
“I tutored a lot of my classmates and realized I could explain it pretty well,” she said.
A National Merit Scholar, Carter said her math classes at TU were extremely challenging, and she began to look at math in a different light.
“I realized these aren’t just formulas I can memorize,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing I can’t wrap my head around.”
At TU, Carter had an opportunity to observe and teach in several Tulsa-area classrooms where student demographics varied widely. The real-life exposure was a precursor to her current role at Drumright High School.
“The socioeconomic level is pretty similar from Tulsa to Drumright,” she said. Some students don’t have great home backgrounds, and it’s an experience similar to working with kids who don’t necessarily love school.”
During her student teaching, she began writing a blog, documenting her daily encounters with students, teaching applications and the learning curve of becoming an educator.
“I kept it anonymous at first, but as I logged more posts, I thought, ‘I’m not ashamed of this. I’m going to put my name on it,’” Carter said.
Appropriately named Math=Love, the blog features hundreds of posts brimming with her genuine passion for teaching others how math can be fun. Carter writes about comical stories from the classroom along with innovative ideas and out-of-the-box activities she has implemented.
“I get messages all of the time from teachers who tell me they’ve been teaching for 25 years and they just learned something new,” she said. “Others will take ideas off the blog, fix them and then message me about how they made them better. I love that.”
Math=Love has been viewed more than 4.7 million times, and Carter has received feedback from readers around the world. She said writing it is therapeutic and an effective way of reflecting on her work.
“When I write about the lesson, I get more out of it,” she said. “I write reminders to myself on what to do different next year.”
A budding educator, Carter has enormous potential to change the historic perceptions of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. Drumright was her first job offer, and she’s often asked why she stays. For Carter, it’s not about the money but the freedom — she can teach math however she wants and make a difference where many students sometimes fall through the cracks.
“I’m trying to get the lower level kids up to where they need to be while not boring other students,” she said. “They come to class with preconceived notions about math. You have to work with them.”
When she arrived in Drumright, the math textbooks provided were the exact versions Carter had used as a high school student. It reminded her of the textbook shortage she witnessed as a student teacher in underprivileged areas of Tulsa. She decided her students would write their own.
“There’s 15 to 18 kids in each class, and I have no curriculum map, no guidance, no textbooks,” Carter said. “I’m allowed to be more creative, and it’s made me realize I have a lot of autonomy in this job and in this district.”
She teaches rationals before radicals and sometimes begins the semester in chapter 12 instead of chapter 1. Nothing is off limits, and along the way students gain confidence in their abilities.
“I’m looking for the best way to introduce seemingly disconnected ideas,” Carter said. “These methods aren’t what I was taught in high school. There has to be a better way, and the experience has reaffirmed that education is where I’m supposed to be.”
Carter wears a Pi-shaped pendant necklace each time she steps into the classroom — a tangible reminder of her goal to keep math fun. As she teaches students about math, they “teach her about life,” and the education circle is complete. She found more than equations and formulas along her mathematical journey; in 2014, a math teacher from Australia began leaving messages on her blog. They began dating and married in 2016.
For Carter, math truly equals love.