Twana Young, VP Academic Design – Math, McGraw-Hill

Twana Young is a visionary leader deeply committed to empowering educators, families, and students through mathematics. With over 25 years of experience in education, she has been a leader at both the district level and in the education industry. Her extensive expertise encompasses curriculum, professional learning, and assessment development, instructional design, educational leadership, and strategic planning. She is currently the Vice President of Academic Design – Mathematics at McGraw Hill, where she oversees the development of high-quality, engaging, and effective math curriculum and resources for students and teachers across K-12 math education.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with K12 Digest, Twana shared her professional trajectory, insights on the key trends in edtech to watch out for in 2024, significant career milestones, personal role model, her biggest stress reliever, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Hi Twana. How did you get into the field of educational technology?

I have always loved technology and have found it to be a great tool to support instruction. I started out as a classroom teacher and utilized technology in my classroom. I became a district coach and eventually the curriculum director of Math, Science, and Instructional Technology for a large urban district. During my tenure in this role, I focused on supporting teachers and administrators in leveraging technology as an instructional tool. I left the district to work at MIND Research Institute, a small non-profit edtech company focused on math. MIND gave me the opportunity to learn more about edtech and create innovative products to support math education. Most recently, I joined McGraw Hill, where I serve as the Vice President of Academic Design for our Math portfolio. In this role, I can continue to contribute to the edtech space.

My journey in edtech has been rewarding and exciting. I have had the opportunity to learn a lot and use my skills and understanding as a teacher practitioner, district leader, and math educator to help shape the content being used in classrooms. I love education, especially math education and I firmly believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to know that they are mathematical and capable problem solvers.

What do you love the most about your current role?

I love the people that I get to work with at McGraw Hill. Everyone is passionate about mathematics and providing resources that support, grow, and empower teachers. We work together with our stakeholders to create instructional materials that build confidence, math understanding, and love of learning in students. We also get to create content that helps support and inform families. Most of my time is spent with the math team, but I can say that everyone that I work with across all disciplines has that same passion to positively impact the field of education.

I also love the work that we get to do in math education. Having the ability to create tools and resources that can make a meaningful impact on the teaching and learning of math is not something we take lightly. One aspect of my job that drives me is the ability to address the fear and anxiety that many students (and adults) have developed around math by providing experiences that build confidence, curiosity, and understanding. This is especially important to me because so many students (and adults) I have met do not feel capable or confident when it comes to mathematics. Many people have developed this faulty idea that there are “math people” and “non-math people.” However, all people can learn math even if it takes more time or effort for some. People by nature are mathematical, they do mathematical things even when they don’t realize it. Things like tapping their foot in time to music (fractions), solving puzzles (spatial reasoning), cooking (estimation, measurement), and keeping track of time (addition, subtraction, fractions, estimation). The great thing about my job is I get to help create products that provide learning opportunities for students and support for teachers that help them to understand math as a discipline, a way we relate to the world, and a place of wonder. I am excited about our Reveal Math program because in the heart of that curriculum lies a focus on creating learning experiences that build the understanding that every student is a math person.

What are some of the roadblocks to having a great classroom where children and teachers have both technology and creative freedom?

A major barrier to using technology is its innovative use within the existing structure. Many schools remain structured in a traditional way. Often technology is added to that structure which may not provide the opportunity to use it in the best way. I think a big challenge is how to help support teachers use technology in innovative ways to help visualize difficult concepts, collaborate with peers, crowdsource information and ideas, and meet students where they are and accelerate them to where they need to go. There are teachers using technology in these ways, but it takes time, training, and resources.

Could you please predict the trends of edtech for 2024?

I believe that the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will continue to grow. Those tools’ ability to provide personalized learning experiences should continuously be the focus of innovation. AI and machine learning can increase the effectiveness of personalized learning so that it builds on students’ prior knowledge and supports them in deepening their understanding of concepts. These tools can support better learning analytics that will support teachers in providing data-informed instruction.

One thing I hope happens throughout the edtech space is that people take time to understand the needs of schools, educators, and students so that the AI tools being built solve challenges and address issues for which classroom teachers need support. AI has the potential to help enhance the human connection in education by saving teachers time so they can focus on doing what they do best in supporting learners. To realize that potential, we must think differently, push into new horizons, and ask the right questions to create tools that add value to the field of education.

What has been your most career-defining moment that you are proud of?

I have had so many amazing opportunities in my career. I have gotten to teach amazing students, work on some incredible teams, build innovative products, engage in research with some great educational thinkers, work on state and national level projects, and share my ideas and the work that I have done in some influential venues. I have also had the opportunity to learn throughout my career from amazing leaders and educators.

If I narrow it down to one defining moment, I will have to say that it was during my time in the classroom. I was teaching seventh-grade math. I had students who had experienced failure when it came to math. They had low expectations of themselves and expected me to as well. I held them to a high standard because I knew they could do it, even if they didn’t believe they could. Throughout the year I saw an incredible change in the students. They were confident and did not mind getting the answer wrong because they understood that was part of the process. We discussed, grappled, tried strategies for solving problems, failed and tried again. They learned that they are the authors of their learning, and that failure did not define them. They learned to persevere and talk through challenging tasks. I also worked with an incredible group of teachers who shared this same philosophy. Together we helped our students understand that they could work hard, learn, and grow in their understanding. That year ignited my passion for creating space and learning experiences that helped students understand that they could be successful in math regardless of their background and past experiences. As a result, I have spent my career focusing on how to create instructional materials that have learning experiences designed to support the development of students as capable and confident problem solvers.

Who is the one person you look up to and why?

I look up to my mother. She is the strongest person I know. She has taught me to be strong in who I am, give my all to everything I do, weather every storm I face, and to continuously learn and grow. She is a playwright and author who has touched many lives through her incredible storytelling abilities. She encourages, supports, and challenges me to continue to seek after my goals. We also look a lot alike, so I call her my twin.

What is your favorite non-academic book and why?

Most of what I read are academic books, so it’s challenging to name a non-academic one. If I had to choose, I would select “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds. The message in this children’s book is truly inspiring. It tells the story of a young girl named Vashti, who learns to believe in herself, express her creativity, and in the process, inspire others. This resonates with how I like to approach life. There have been times when I’ve stretched myself to do things I didn’t know I could. Often, the push I needed came from someone who helped me see my potential. In the book, Vashti’s teacher saw her potential and encouraged her until Vashti started to see it too. This is something we can and should do for others, and it’s a part of who I strive to be as a leader, educator, and human being.

The theme of the book reminds me of a quote by Thasunda Brown Duckett, President and CEO of TIAA: “You rent your title, but you own your character.” Vashti didn’t initially see herself as an artist, but that didn’t diminish her potential or character. Once she realized this, her confidence grew. It is my goal to help every student understand and develop their potential in mathematics.

What is your biggest stress reliever?

I love a good old fashioned dance party. I love to sing, even though I do not do it well. However, that does not stop me from grabbing my karaoke microphone (yes, you heard me right I do have a karaoke microphone that plays Motown hits) singing loudly (and badly) and dancing around. I may look silly, but it is a lot of fun. I always feel much lighter, more joyful, energized, and ready to tackle the work ahead after my dance party.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

I am currently working on my Ph.D. in Education, focusing on Curriculum and Instruction. My goal is to complete my research and successfully defend my dissertation. Additionally, I want to continue to innovate in math education to provide better materials and support for teachers, students, and families. My goal is to create math products that cultivate curiosity, inspire joy, and help students see the beauty of the math around them. Students should feel empowered to share their mathematical ideas, learn from each other, and successfully master math concepts. We need to create generations of great problem solvers and mathematical thinkers and I would like to play a part (even if it is a small one) in making that happen.

Do you have any advice for women working in the edtech space?

Earlier I shared my journey, but what I didn’t say was that I didn’t get to any of these positions by myself. I was blessed to have doors open for me, people advocating, speaking my name in rooms I was not in, and championing not just the work I was doing, but me as a person and as a leader. The three things I think that are important in my story that you didn’t hear are grace, humility, and learning. I am not perfect and have not been in any of these positions I have held. I have been given grace and I have given grace. I try to approach this work and this opportunity to lead with humility understanding that great leaders make great leaders. A leadership platform is a great opportunity to make space and create opportunities for those that will come after you. I know that collectively we are way smarter than any individual could be. I also know that continuous learning is essential to leadership. Not just reading books, but getting feedback, checking in with people, and using every opportunity to continue to grow myself and others.

Here is my advice: Build a network, get a mentor, and commit to continuous learning. Set goals and identify your strengths and the areas that you need to work on to get you where you want to go. Talk to your leaders, especially your direct supervisor, about your goals and ambitions. Ask for leadership opportunities (not necessarily new titles or promotions) but opportunities that will enable you to grow.

Do not sell yourself short. Understand the assets that you bring and how they can be leveraged to achieve your goals and the goals of your organization. Remain open to learning, willing to change, working toward your goals, and remember to take care of yourself.

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