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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching

Andrew Paulsen

9th-11th Grade Algebra II and Geometry, East Side High School Newark, NJ

Early in Andrew Paulsen’s teaching career, he sat down with a student who had failed algebra once before, looking to understand what could help the student succeed. When Paulsen asked what the student wanted to do when he got older, the answer surprised him.

“He looked at me in the eye and said, ‘Mister, no one’s ever asked me that question before.’”

It was a formative experience for the young teacher—and one that he carries with him five years into his career at East Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. “I'd been living an extremely privileged life,” says Paulsen. “I remember when I was four years old, people were asking me, ‘Oh Andrew, what do you want to do when you're older?’ And that student never had those opportunities.”

From then on, Paulsen committed himself to always keeping his students’ futures in mind. “I'm of the belief that we need to teach kids,” he says. “Children are our next leaders. That's how we need to treat them. It's important that they learn science and math, but we can never lose track of the fact that we're teaching children.”

From the student’s perspective, that means that the beginning of the school year might not seem like an ordinary math class. Paulsen takes a holistic approach to the start of the school year, inspired by carefully studying the intersections between communication, leadership, and pedagogy. Before students dive deeply into math concepts, they cover an important lesson that will pave the way to future achievement: their mindset matters.

“The first day of school, we're doing mindset work,” he says. “We're doing work on emotional talk and emotional learning. We're doing relationship building. A lot of students are coming to me that first Friday, and they're like, ‘When are we going to start math, Mr. Paulsen?’ And I love it. I say, ‘Oh, we're going to get there.’”

Before Paulsen gets to math, he wants to lock in a challenging but collaborative classroom culture. “Sure, the first couple weeks, there’s some pushback because it's a new style of learning, but over time, they feel empowered by it.” When Paulsen does turn the class’ attention to algebra, the students grow at a tremendous pace because they have the tools to overcome challenges as they master math concepts by moving from the concrete to the representational to the abstract.

“Not only does he instruct mathematics in ways that align to the Common Core and conceptual thinking, but Mr. Paulsen teaches students many life lessons outside of the classroom,” says Paulsen’s supervisor, Michael De Antonio, Jr. “Students learn what it means to be a good student and citizen. He instills in students a value of education that empowers them to succeed.”

During the 2015-2016 school year, Paulsen’s students had the highest passing percentage on the national PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exam of any high school classroom in Newark Public Schools. Only 75 students in the entire district passed the Geometry test this past year—and 25 were enrolled in Paulsen’s class. Throughout the entire district, only three students were awarded “exceeds expectations.” Paulsen taught all three.

For those students, it may seem like a perfect ending to geometry class, but in Paulsen’s classroom, determination—not perfection—matters most. “It's on my door,” he says. “‘Mistakes are expected, respected, inspected. I expect that you're going to make mistakes. I respect that you make mistakes. And now we're going to inspect them so we don't make those mistakes in the future.”