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Niloufar Zandnia

  • Niloufar

    Department of STEM (Math)
    Central office staff

My story

My name is Niloufar (Lily) Zandnia. I am the middle school math specialist for the Department of STEM. I am the daughter of two immigrant parents who first migrated from Iran to France and then eventually to the United States. Growing up speaking a different language and having a culture and traditions that did not match the people around me caused a lot of confusion. I was constantly trying to figure out how to balance my culture and “fit in” at the same time. In elementary school, the one place I felt like I excelled was mathematics because language was not essential for me to demonstrate my understanding. My love for mathematics grew from there and when I decided to go into education, I knew that I wanted to help students feel the same connection to it that I did. I wanted to give them a voice in the classroom where they previously felt like they didn’t have one.

Why I choose to engage in equity work

My current role has me supporting middle school math teachers while also creating a districtwide vision for strong mathematical classrooms. My team believes that all students are capable of engaging in rigorous and challenging mathematics. Mathematics is not just a set of facts that we want students to learn and memorize, it is a way to logically solve and think about the problems we face in our day to day lives. The work that I do is about engaging teachers in meaningful mathematical learning so they can see and understand the beauty of mathematics. Assisting teachers to see that mathematics is a way of thinking helps them expand their beliefs about who can do mathematics. For students, having strong comprehension in mathematics breaks down barriers and opens doors.

My equity challenge and how I work on it

The equity challenge we face is ensuring that all children in the City of Chicago have equitable access to a high-quality mathematical program. This program should engage students in critical thinking and empower them to make decisions and find solutions to everyday problems around them. Contrary to popular belief, every person is a “math person” and teaching everyone to see that is a crucial part of my job. This way of thinking really must come from the top down, so the first step is working with educators of mathematics to see this within themselves so they can then empower students. If the teacher in the classroom does not truly believe that all students are mathematicians and can learn mathematics at high levels, then students are going to pick up on that and from an early age they will have negative beliefs about their ability to achieve in math.

What sustains me when equity work stalls, how do I stay motivated when the work gets hard, and how do I push myself and others to advance equity

Seeing a student’s face when they have a moment of comprehension or when they have a chance to show their understanding in a way that they have not before is what keeps me motivated. Students all have a right to see themselves as mathematicians and it is our job as educators to nurture that. Every time that I hear an educator share how they are seeing mathematics in a new way, it gives me hope that we will be able to reach all the children in the city.