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Meet Assistant Professor Ruby Ellis: ‘I’ve Always Believed That Education Was the Key That Unlocks the Door of Opportunity’

NC State College of Education Assistant Professor Ruby Ellis, Ph.D.

This is part of a series of profiles about new faculty who have joined the College of Education in the 2021-22 academic year. 

Name: Ruby Ellis, Ph.D.

Title: Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education

Education: Ph.D. in Mathematics Education from Auburn University, Ed.S. in Mathematics Education from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, M.Ed. in Mathematics Education from Alabama State University, Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and High School Education from the University of Alabama at Birmingham

Experience: Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Missouri; Postdoctoral research fellow, Auburn University; Secondary mathematics teacher at various schools in Alabama.

Why did you choose a career in education? 

For 10.5 years, I was a secondary mathematics teacher.  However, secondary mathematics education was not my initial major as an undergraduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  My plan was to major in mathematics and computer science and become a computer programmer.  Prior to entering college, I loved mathematics.  My teachers allowed me to see the joy and beauty in mathematics. 

However, those feelings did not continue to manifest during the early years of my undergraduate education. Although I excelled in my courses, as a mathematics and computer science major, I found myself consumed with boredom and no sense of purpose. My desire to pursue this career changed when a close friend asked me to participate in a teacher shadowing opportunity at the university. This allowed me to observe an amazing Black, female mathematics teacher in an urban school teaching and using mathematics in ways that engaged her students in successfully exploring and mastering mathematical concepts.  

After seeing the teacher’s influence, passion, joy and love for instilling knowledge, seeing her students light up with excitement during discussions and explorations, and remembering the joy I felt as a student, I decided that this was the optimal career path for me. I changed my major at the end of the semester. That was one of the greatest decisions I have ever made. I’ve always believed that education was the key that unlocks the door of opportunity and I’m excited to help my students get those keys!

Why did you decide to pursue a doctoral degree?

While completing my Ed.S, I realized I enjoyed conducting and analyzing research.  The process of identifying an issue and developing a study to address or examine the issue was fascinating.  It seemed like a natural progression to continue my graduate studies and obtain a Ph.D. This allowed me to strengthen the knowledge and research skills I believed I needed to design, execute, analyze and disseminate quality research that has the potential to positively impact the way teachers and students experience the teaching and learning of mathematics.

What are your research interests?

My research examines professional development aimed at supporting mathematics teachers (primarily in schools with a high African American student population) in integrating technology in alignment with inquiry-based instructional practices. In particular, I examine teacher attitudes, beliefs and learning in relation to their participation in such professional learning experiences.  

What sparked your interest in those topics?

As a former mathematics teacher in a technology-rich school with a high percentage of African American, low-income students, I noticed that I was the only teacher in my department consistently allowing students to use technology to explore mathematical concepts.  Too often, I noticed that the available technology remained unused by teachers and students throughout the school year.  Many of my colleagues believed that they and their students were incapable of using technology effectively during instruction. Additionally, many of my colleagues did not believe that technology was a valuable tool for teaching and learning mathematics. Although participation in technology-focused professional development was required, the structure of those professional development activities had little to no positive impact on my colleagues’ beliefs and practices related to technology use during instruction. This led me to explore additional professional development models and learning theories to help mathematics teachers increase their effective use of mathematical action technology during instruction.

What is one research project or moment in your academic career that you are particularly proud of? 

In my dissertation study, I explored the impact of situated professional development for integrating technology in mathematics instruction on the pedagogical beliefs and teaching practices of secondary mathematics teachers in a school with a high African American, low-income student population. I utilized situated learning theory, the Mathematics Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge Framework and the elements of effective professional development defined by Darling-Hammond, Gardner, and Espinoza, to guide the development of the study.  Through multiple case studies, I examined the beliefs and practices of six secondary mathematics teachers (four high school and two middle school). Analysis of data collected from departmental workshops, pre-and post-interviews, observations, observation debrief interviews, multiple planning sessions, lesson plan analysis and department meetings revealed an increase in students’ and participants’ use of mathematical action technology to explore mathematics content during and after participating in the situated professional development activities.  Additionally, participants increased their collaboration with colleagues and decreased their overall use of low-level cognitive demand tasks during and after participating in the situated professional development activities. 

What is your teaching philosophy?

My philosophy of teaching pre-service mathematics teachers is directly related to my philosophy of teaching secondary mathematics students. I believe students should be given opportunities to develop the strategies and dispositions needed to reason and make sense of mathematics. My teaching goals within mathematics teacher education are to orchestrate experiences and opportunities that combine and extend well beyond the transfer of knowledge; experiences and opportunities within teacher preparation must lead to the positive transformation of teachers’ beliefs and dispositions.

What do you hope your students learn from you?

My scholarship, teaching and service will function as tools I use to confront and change negative beliefs regarding marginalized students’ (particularly African American and low-income) mathematics abilities and the benefits of using mathematical action technology to explore mathematical concepts.  I want my students to become passionate educators who believe not only in their abilities to affect positive change, but to believe in their future students’ abilities and provide them with opportunities to explore mathematics in meaningful ways.

What makes someone an “extraordinary educator?”

An extraordinary educator is passionate about their field and is always learning. They strive to make contributions to improve experiences for all learners.  They see and value the cultural capital their students possess. They also empower their students to believe in their abilities to help them excel in their endeavors.