Amber Candela brings productive noise to the classroom, earns Gitner Excellence in Teaching Award

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After tutoring children in El Salvador, Amber Candela pursued a career in mathematics education and now brings a decade of experience to the University of Missouri–St. Louis. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Math anxiety doesn’t keep Amber Candela from sharing her passion for the subject.

As an assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, she equips future math teachers with the best strategies for making math social and exciting.

“I emphasize growth mindsets,” Candela said. “Even if a student hasn’t been successful in the past, it doesn’t mean they can’t succeed now. Students will only learn as much as you give them. And if given the opportunity to be successful, they can make surprising leaps in progress.”

In just two short years, Candela has built a reputation as a challenging yet personable, enthusiastic and attentive teacher. In evaluations, education students in her courses have described her as “phenomenal” and an “asset to the university.”

For her commitment to the UMSL learning community, math educators and math students, Candela has been named the 2016 recipient of the Gerald and Deanne Gitner Excellence in Teaching Award. The award, and a $500 honorarium, will be presented to her at the State of the University Address on Sept. 14.

In a nomination letter, Nancy Singer, chair of the department of educator preparation, innovation and research, stated she felt privileged to watch Candela grow as a researcher and leader. During an observation visit, Singer was struck by Candela’s rapport with the classroom.

“I have marveled the most at Dr. Candela’s interactions with teacher preparation students,” Singer wrote. “I’ve seen students talk and think differently about mathematics after her instruction. And whether observing preservice teachers or colleagues, one yardstick I always use to measure teaching is this one: ‘Would I want this person teaching my own children?’ The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ for Dr. Amber Candela.”

Candela shared that she would not have been as successful without the support of Singer and her peers in the College of Education. She credits April Regester, Nick Husbye and Gayle Wilkinson as particularly helpful in her development. Furthermore, the autonomy she has enjoyed in creating original, research-based courses has been vital to her efforts to foster comfortable learning spaces.

“My classroom is noisy and fun,” Candela said. “As future math educators work through tasks they might use in their classrooms, there’s conversation and real collaboration. They find they want the same level of constructive noise in their classrooms and get excited about sharing math.”

Regester has also witnessed the difference Candela’s collaborative learning methods can make in comparison to traditional, lecture-based mathematics classes. During one such lesson, Regester watched Candela encourage students to take different routes to solve problems and synthesize their work to promote central understanding of key concepts.

“A clear emphasis was put on the idea that there is not just one ‘right’ answer,” said Regester. “Oftentimes, this was contradictory to what students might have learned in their own elementary school math experiences, yet Amber eloquently facilitated brief discussions on the importance of critiquing the ‘norm’ and emphasizing student strengths versus deficits. She has proven herself to be extremely versatile in her pedagogical approaches and successful in creating an enthusiastic yet rigorous learning environment that is worthy of recognition.”

The UMSL community has responded with the same level of recognition for Candela’s service. When considering her upcoming award, she can only express gratitude.

“I love teaching, and I’m honored because it’s just nice to be recognized for what you’re so passionate about,” Candela said. “I think of all the hard work you put into it. It feels good to realize you’re impacting your students somehow and they appreciate what you do.”

The UMSL Experience

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