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Tisha Cake: Bringing collaboration to math

By CORINA VANEK Sun Staff Reporter , Arizona Daily Sun – November 29, 2015

Rodel Teachers

Taylor Mahoney/AZ Daily Sun

Tisha Cake said she knew she wanted to be a teacher since she was a child, but said it took time to realize her calling was at the middle school level.

“If you told me 20 years ago that I would be teaching math at the middle school level, I would have said you were crazy,” Cake said.

Cake, a sixth grade math teacher at Sinagua Middle School, is one of two Flagstaff winners of the Rodel Exemplary Teacher honor, which honors teachers in high need schools. Teachers are nominated by their principals and are interviewed and chosen by the Rodel Foundation. As a winner, Cake will be expected to mentor three college students and will be awarded $2,500.

She said the honor was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” and said she was very proud and thankful that her principal had nominated her.

Cake, who has taught at different levels for 19 years, came to Sinagua after Christensen Elementary School closed. She said she didn’t initially plan to teach math, but has since grown to love it.

In recent years, Cake said she has tried to shift her classroom dynamic to a more student-centered approach, allowing students to work in groups and talk through the math problems together.

“It has been a shift in teaching,” she said. “I spent years doing all the thinking and all the talking, now I let the students go for it, but set norms at the beginning.”

She said she will show students a problem they have not seen before, and allow them to talk through the steps they would take with their group.

“I tell them we are scuba diving, not snorkeling,” she said. “I apply practices and see them have a productive struggle. They have conversations and learn from each other.”

Cake said math class looks different now than when the parents of her students were in school, and requires the students to show they know the concept in different ways, like drawing a model of the concept.

Even the basics of teaching have changed, Cake said. She said now there is a focus on collaboration with other teachers in the department and at the grade level to support one another share ideas for improving their teaching techniques.

As a sixth grade teacher, Cake helps work to ease her students through the transition from elementary school to middle school.

“Some kids have a hard transition, they aren’t used to having six different teachers and having to walk all over a big building,” she said. “Usually they find a routine within a few weeks.”

Cake said she and other middle school teachers collaborate with the elementary schools and the other middle school to help students make the transition and know what is expected of them.

Cake said building a supportive classroom culture not only helps ease the school transition, but help create an environment where students can learn more effectively.

“My students need to know it’s a safe and positive environment,” she said. “You need to build that positive relationship from day one.”

The reporter can be reached at or 556-2249.