Education Professor Makes Math
How do you inspire students by making education fun? The key, said
McVarish, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair of Curriculum and
Instruction, is to spark their curiosity.
“I believe children would never develop a fear of math if we made
it more exciting,” Dr. McVarish said. “This is the element that
motivates students of every age.” She used this insight to develop
In Addition, an after-school math program that has become one of The School of
Education’s signature initiatives.
Dr. McVarish established In Addition at St. John’s when she came to
the University in 2005. Since then, 20 to 28 Manhattan inner-city
students in the third, fourth and fifth grades have participated
In Addition’s emphasis is on asking questions and solving problems
— rather than following a traditional approach that relies on
drills and tests. This has generated enthusiastic student responses
and consistently positive results.
“Her visionary combination of activity-based learning, monthly
meetings with parents and weekend student/family/faculty retreats
has helped put St. John’s into the forefront of after-school
programming,” said Jerrold Ross, Ph.D.,
Dean of The School of Education.
Dr. McVarish traces her commitment to making math fun and
accessible to a formative experience she had in the sixth grade.
“My teacher told me I was making ‘silly mistakes,’ so I began to
lose confidence in my ability to work with numbers.” It was only
later in life that she realized how widespread this feeling
When Dr. McVarish decided to pursue a career in education, one of
her goals was to help students overcome their fear of math. She
achieved this by providing a supportive learning environment,
encouraging students to explore, to question and, above all, to
A student in Dr. McVarish’s course on teaching elementary school
math, Victoria Romero ’13Ed benefited from this approach. “I was
lucky to be in her class,” said Romero. “Dr. McVarish was a game
changer. She helped me conquer my fear of numbers — which I
developed in grade school — and master a discipline I needed to
learn if I wanted to be an elementary school teacher.”
It was her love of teaching that first drew Dr. McVarish to St.
John’s. “I was impressed by the high value placed on teaching
[here],” she said. She was also attracted by the University’s
service orientation, finding it compelling that service is “not
just tolerated here, but respected, honored and expected.”
Dr. McVarish also participates in the University’s
Institute for Catholic Schools. As part of its “Project
TIE: Training Innovative Teachers,” she helps to improve
elementary school teachers’ effectiveness in math and English
language arts. And through the Institute’s Curriculum Leadership
Teams (CLTs), Dr. McVarish helps Catholic schools implement New
York State’s new Common Core initiative.
Assisting schools throughout the city, Dr. McVarish said, is an
important aim of St. John’s University and The School of Education.
“Our faculty are expected to go out into the field and work in
community schools,” she said.
At the same time, Dr. McVarish contributes as a writer and
researcher. She is the author of a well-reviewed textbook,
Where’s the Wonder in Elementary Math? Encouraging Mathematical
Reasoning in the Classroom (2007), as well as a
soon-to-be-published study on faculty self-assessment techniques in
Her contributions also extend to The School of Education’s recent
decision to start presenting Parent Involvement Awards at
Commencement. “Parents and other caregivers play such an important
role in the education process,” she noted. “It’s gratifying to see
the University honor them with an official tribute.”
For Dr. McVarish, St. John’s has turned out to be the perfect
springboard to prepare inspirational educators. “Our future depends
on having educators who will be able to teach students to think
critically,” she said. “It’s important to be able to pose
questions, instead of just answering them passively.”