Adam Krupa-Schayer

High School Teacher, East Hartford Public Schools

Math is notoriously hard for some high schoolers, making it a big challenge to teach. Adam Krupa-Schayer knows this only too well, having taught it for 13 years in middle and high schools in Hartford and East Hartford. He also has special insight into why math daunts so many students: It once daunted him.

His is the rare story of a struggling high school math student who mastered the subject with the help of a great teacher, then dedicated himself to helping others do the same. 

His own difficulties came to a head when he was a junior taking Algebra II at Enfield High School from a young teacher named Katie Ellis. She discovered that he was missing some key math building blocks and helped him recover them. Before long, equations and logarithms began to click.

Krupa-Schayer learned much more than math from Ellis. “She really was tough on kids, but it was tough love,” he said. “No one got away with taking the easy way out. She knew everyone had the ability to do well if they tried.” Working hard in the face of a challenge became basic to who he was. So did a desire to teach math.

To prepare himself, Krupa-Schayer majored in math at Western New England University, where he often was the only aspiring educator in classes packed with future engineers. He felt so overmatched at times that he wondered if he was on the right path and reached out to Ellis for advice. “She gave me a lot of insight and motivation,” he said. He graduated summa cum laude.

Now he teaches the SAT math prep course at East Hartford High School. Although many colleges have dropped the SAT as an admissions requirement, it remains the performance assessment for Connecticut public high schools, and Krupa-Schayer’s job is to ensure East Hartford students are ready for it. Almost all his students are juniors studying Algebra II. He teaches five SAT prep classes each quarter, a total of 100 students per grading period. By the end of the year, almost the entire junior class of 400 has passed through his classroom.

On one level, Krupa-Schayer now does for East Hartford juniors what Katie Ellis did for him – solidifying the foundation of their math knowledge near the end of high school. But he has only ten weeks to diagnose what may be missing from any student’s understanding. “I’m sort of the last line of defense,” he said. 

Krupa-Schayer has many inventive ways of pulling this off, beginning with the design of his classroom.

Room 141 has the feel of an open office space, where collaboration is the rule. Students sit at tables of four, each with a whiteboard surface. Krupa-Schayer gives the class a problem, and each foursome works as a team – writing, diagramming, conferring, erasing and revising until they agree on the answer. All the while, Krupa-Schayer strolls the room, listening carefully to the discussions, discerning what everyone knows and, as importantly, what they don’t.

He often finds that multiple students are missing something critical from Algebra I – particularly those who learned remotely during the pandemic – and he constructs remedial lessons in response. But it is striking, he said, how many students haven’t mastered the basic building blocks of math – multiplication tables, fractions, when to divide versus multiply. 

“The elephant in the room is that students need help with number sense,” Krupa-Schayer said. 

East Hartford High is a Title 1 school, with a high proportion of economically disadvantaged students, but Krupa-Schayer said students in more affluent districts have similar issues. Early in his career, he blamed these deficits on poor teaching in middle and elementary school. But the resentment sapped his energy, he said, and distracted him from the job at hand. 

You can’t just ask, `How did you not learn this in middle school?’ These are such foundational skills I won’t sleep well at night if I haven’t tried to remediate them. So, let’s do something about it.

Adam Krupa-Schayer

Krupa-Schayer created the Mad Minute, in which he challenges everyone to solve 25 math problems in one minute every Monday. It’s a little like a sports event, in that students compete throughout the quarter for the highest average, but the real purpose is for them to practice the basics until they know them cold. 

Rarely does Krupa-Schayer stand in front of the class and lecture. His goal is to get students to problem-solve together, giving him opportunities to listen for gaps in understanding as they think out loud. He calls one such exercise, “Think. Pair. Share.” 

Suppose you have a scoop of ice cream melting on a sugar cone, he said. Will it ultimately overflow the cone or not?  He gave everyone 30 seconds to think about how to solve the problem. Then came the Pair phase – exchanging these thoughts with each other. Finally, it was the Share phase – in which they answered yes or no, accompanied by an explanation.

The correct answer involved recognizing that the scoop is a sphere. If the sphere’s (or scoop’s) volume is larger than the cone’s, the answer is yes. If it’s smaller, the answer is no.

“The share phase helps me determine where the misconceptions are. If all 18 say it’ll overflow because the scoop looks bigger, we have to learn some critical thinking,” he said.

Students take a practice SAT test when they enter Krupa-Schayer’s class, and again when they exit. In the fall quarter, most students raised their scores 80 to 100 points. So, the “last line of defense” appears to be holding up well.

Krupa-Schayer’s experience in math goes well beyond East Hartford. He is a consultant to the College Board and holds degrees and certifications to be a principal. But the classroom is where he finds the greatest reward, he said, even though his students often insist they’ll never need math after high school. Fair enough, he concedes: They may not need trigonometry, but they’ll use their problem-solving and collaboration skills for the rest of their lives.

“I hope I’m the teacher remembered not necessarily for math,” he said.