Brittany Caldwell

Ph.D., education

Brittany Caldwell / Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta
Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta
Brittany Caldwell is a diligent scholar focusing on the impact of early-grade math instruction. Her grit and determination helped her pull off an impressive feat: earning her Ph.D. in math education and teaching hundreds of students in seminars, all while raising three children.

When she gave a recent Zoom interview, Caldwell seemed remarkably calm, in spite of a pressing academic deadline and the blurry little people who kept running back and forth behind her on the screen.

Those shapes, fuzzed by Caldwell’s Zoom screen settings, were her kids, aged 5, 3, and 1.
A child popped up right beside her and whispered a question in her ear.

She had all three children since the start of her program.

Caldwell specializes in early (pre-K through third grade) mathematics instruction with emergent bilinguals (EBs). Her dissertation, Mathematics Instruction for Emergent Bilinguals in Early Grades: Drawing on Young Learners’ Assets, focuses on teachers’ beliefs and practices around mathematics, mathematics teaching, and student thinking. Her research interests include early-elementary mathematics, teachers and teaching, and professional development.

Through all of life’s distractions, Caldwell maintained her passion and focus as she studied the way educators teach mathematics to young children, while uncovering reasons why early math education is effective and important.

Earlier in her career, Caldwell wanted to be a kindergarten or first-grade teacher. But once she finished her undergraduate studies and became a preschool teacher, she began to notice that some of her colleagues shied away from teaching their young pupils math.

“Some were really afraid of math,” Caldwell said. “I never felt that way. I’ve always been a math person. I saw the way these teachers were avoiding it, and that really sparked my interest. I wondered why this was the case, and what I could do about it. At that moment, my focus started shifting away from teaching children and toward teaching educators.”

Caldwell said that most children enrolled in U.S. schools start math instruction in kindergarten, but she believes there should be room in preschool for what she calls “playful mathematics,” which provides a strong and useful platform for students to learn math skills in informal, playful, and interactive ways.

This is the sort of casual instruction that kids learn at home all the time in many interactions, whether divvying up cookies or counting coins. Playful mathematics extends those home-style teaching methods into classroom settings, Caldwell said.

On top of all her at-home responsibilities and her studies, she completed UCSC’s Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning (CITL) Graduate Pedagogy Fellows program, taught an online course with 220 students, and is teaching an in-person course this year with 180 students.
Caldwell has also worked for the English Learner Success Forum, a collaboration of researchers, teachers, district leaders, and fundraisers working to improve the quality and accessibility of instructional materials for English learners.

Next stop is Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where Caldwell will pursue a postdoc in education with funding from the National Science Foundation.

She will be studying remotely, so she will only have to travel to Nashville every once in a while. For now, at least, she will stay put in Scotts Valley.

Raising her kids while continuing to advance her studies will be a lot of work, but Caldwell has devised a system that has worked for her so far.

“How do I do all this?” said Caldwell. “Honestly, it helps to have lots of coffee. But also I have a very strong support system. Both sets of grandparents live close by. My husband is very supportive. My mom does a lot of childcare. She kept telling me, ‘I just want to see you get that degree, I want to see you get a good job, and I will do whatever I need to help you get there.’’’