Math instructor comes home to Harkness

Rachel Labes discovered Harkness at an Exeter summer professional development conference. Now she’s teaching here, and passionate about its power.

Cassandra Barnhart
June 28, 2019
Rachel Labes at an Exeter summer professional development conference.

Rachel Labes was introduced to the Harkness table years before she joined the Exeter faculty. Now, five years later, and with a year of teaching math at Exeter under her belt, she’s navigating her way through Harkness in a whole new light.

This week Labes is spending her days around the Harkness table with other teachers at the Anja Greer Conference on Mathematics and Technology, a professional development conference for secondary school teachers. It’s a return for Labes — this is where she first encountered Harkness, right before starting a job at a school in New York.

At that time, she was excited to incorporate Harkness into a new environment. “I was really interested in not having a classroom that was entirely direct instruction,” Labes says. “I had some great classes where I feel we were able to dig in and the students were able to really play with the material and have fun with it.”

Ultimately, her journey brought her back to where she learned to love Harkness in the first place. “The challenge from the other schools was trying to balance doing both [instructional teaching and Harkness],” she notes. “But here at Exeter, we get so much out of it. That’s what’s so exciting.”

During the conference Labes has explored a number of innovative activities designed to engage students and teachers in math. From learning about the cultural applications of geometry to making art in math class, the biggest challenge now is finding out where these new tools fit into her classes. “I’m learning where ideas can come together,” she says.

‘Math across Cultures and Through the Ages,’ one of the classes Labes is attending with other secondary school teachers at the Anja Greer Conference on Mathematics and Technology.

She’s just as enthusiastic to learn as she was the first time. Sitting around the Harkness table with other teachers, she says she is “excited to think about different ways to present calculus and help students remember some of the really important ideas, beyond just the rules and how to apply them.”

Labes’ superpower at the Harkness table is her enthusiasm. “I get really excited about math and I try not to minimize that,” she says. “I think if the person you’re working with is excited you’re more likely to get excited. I can see the novelty of the material, the same way the students can.”

Though her passion for learning and teaching has led her to many places in her career, she finds the Exeter community to be unique. “There’s something special about what happens on the field or in the dorm that can translate to how a student chooses to interact. There are definite relationships that are created,” she says. “I think it’s that recognition, that we’re all equal, that you don’t always see.”