Mathematically Gifted & Black - Homepage

Black History Month
2022 Honoree

Back to Circle of Excellence
Karen Riley Jeffers

Karen Riley Jeffers

District Elementary Resource Teacher

Prince George's County Public Schools

I am a first-generation American of Barbadian (Bajan) descent, born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. Currently, I reside in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

As a child, I loved books, puzzles, and solving problems. Math and Science were my favorite subjects and were relatively easy for me. I enjoyed them so much, I decided to pursue a career in medicine. During high school, I engaged in programs and internships and worked in hospitals to deepen my knowledge of the sciences and the medical field. However, throughout my college journey at Brown University (in Rhode Island), I discovered my passion for education, leaving medicine behind, but not my love for math and science.

When I started teaching, math was the most difficult subject for me to teach. It was not enough that only some of my students seemed to grasp the concepts I taught and other students did not. I was not sure how else to reach them and I did not feel I possessed the most effective instructional methods to aid all of my students in mastering the concepts they needed to learn. Therefore, I pursued professional development opportunities to fine-tune my craft as a math teacher.

This engagement in professional development led me to a summer institute, specifically geared towards helping teachers understand how to teach math. A great portion of time was spent solving problems, cracking codes, and discovering patterns. The instructors of this program intentionally connected these activities to the algorithms we taught our students, to help us understand why they worked. Mind blown! I was never taught to understand why they worked. I was only taught to learn the rules of when to use them. From that point on, I became a different teacher, focusing my lessons on having students make connections, see patterns, and discover the rules themselves. The more I learned about the beauty of math all around us the more my love and passion grew for the field.

I used this love and passion for mathematics to inspire the students I taught. We discovered patterns and tested them to see if they worked in all situations. If the patterns worked, they knew they discovered a rule they could use to solve similar problems. I introduced them to researchers such as Fibonacci to open their eyes to see math in nature and recognize its existence everywhere. I would always ask why and encourage them to explain how they knew they were right. Independent research and projects were integral to our understanding of mathematics as well. We conferenced together to discuss their individual data journeys and set goals for our next unit/assessment. Lastly, I introduced them to professional fields, invited speakers, and took field trips to deepen their knowledge.

My most proud accomplishments as a K-12 educator are the students I’ve taught. I learned as much from them as they learned from me. When a former elementary school parent recognizes me, hugs me, and shares the wonderful things their son/daughter is doing as an adult, it warms my heart to know I was one of the stepping stones along their path to success.

In addition to my beautiful family, my most proud accomplishment in my personal life is me and the person I’ve become. I’ve achieved a variety of successes in and outside of education, despite the obstacles I encountered along the way. After losing my mother at the age of 13, one can only imagine the variety of directions my life could have gone, and yet this was only the beginning of the challenges life would have for me, for life comes with many challenges. It reminds me of the poem by Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son” (1922).

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

So my encouragement to others is to not give up. Stay focused on your goals no matter what obstacles or challenges may come your way. Never underestimate yourself by telling yourself no. Try anyway. Throw your name in the hat and you will find others will say yes and open the doors for you to experience greater opportunities.