Cleveland teacher spreads love of math with annual competition

Leigh Cooksey, deputy director of educator engagement, recently attended the Southeast Tennessee Math Competition in Cleveland, Tennessee and chatted with Adam Moss, the competition’s founder and organizer, to learn more about the annual tradition.

Tell me about the Southeast Tennessee Math Competition.

The Southeast Tennessee Math Competition brings together students across the southeast region of Tennessee in grades 4-8 to compete and display their mathematical prowess. The contest itself consists of three different events – an individual test, a team test, and a quiz-bowl style buzzer round. The problems are clever, engaging, and challenging. The atmosphere is exciting for students and teachers alike.

Why did you start it? Where did you get the idea?

When I was hired to teach fifth grade mathematics in 2008, I inherited a small math enrichment club that met weekly for about an hour. These fourth and fifth grade students were already excelling in their classroom content and were excited to get together and challenge themselves with problems from the Math Olympiad (MOEMS) series. They really enjoyed competing against one another for bragging rights.

A few years down the road, we were invited to attend a competition in Huntsville, Alabama. We didn’t win anything that year, but the kids really enjoyed competing together against students from other schools, and I realized that this was something that we could facilitate in our hometown. It took some initial planning and getting buy-in from potential partners, and in 2012 we held the first annual Southeast Tennessee Math Competition on the campus of Lee University with 30 teams of students from grades 4-8.

What’s your favorite thing about the competition?

Seeing over 300 students (plus parents and teachers) come out early on a Saturday morning to do difficult math problems (for fun!). And seeing familiar faces return each year is pretty special.

How has the competition changed in five years?

The first change we made was to recognize more students for their talents. The first year we only recognized the top 3 individuals and the top 3 teams from each grade level. The second year we began awarding a trophy to the overall top performing team, regardless of grade level and added the MVP award for the highest performing individual on each team. I’m not one to believe in a trophy for everyone, but I saw very talented students become frustrated when their teammates were holding them back because they weren’t on the same level.

As the competition has doubled in size  from about 30 teams to about 60 , we have restructured the day in a few different ways to  accommodate the growing  interest in the time-frame that we have. Since we can’t facilitate multiple buzzer rounds for each team, we randomly pair teams of the same grade level, and we extended the length of the buzzer-round to 15 questions instead of the original 10.

How are you able to pull off such a large event?

I get by with a little help from my friends…and coworkers, colleagues, and local high school and university volunteers—anyone who I can wrangle into participating.  All of the organizational skills in the world mean nothing if there aren’t boots on the ground to put the ideas into action.

We also charge a modest registration fee for each team to cover the cost of the competition (buzzer systems, copyrighted test items, awards, banners, printing, etc.).

How does participating in something like this affect students?

There is a sense of pride that comes from doing well in a competition. Many students experience this on the field or on the court, but not every child is athletically inclined. The spark of excitement carries over into their school work and provides a confidence boost.

But there is also something to be said for a student’s desire to do better after defeat. I overheard two students chatting as they were leaving their buzzer-round this year. They were considered the brightest two in their class, and they had just been decimated by their opponents. This was a new experience for them, but a good one because of their growth mindset. They were devising a plan of action to get ready for next year’s competition, a full year away!

What are your plans for the future of the competition?

This competition will exist as long as there are students interested in participating and volunteers willing to serve these students. We have just about outgrown our competition space and are looking at ways to best accommodate growing interest.

What advice do you have for teachers interested in starting a similar event?

Reach out to others in the community who are like-minded to build that support. Think carefully about what you want your end product to look like and the organizational structure you need to make it happen. Also, avoid stressing about perfection—it will always get better in time. If folks are interested in being a part of this day (competing or volunteering) or are interested in starting a competition of their own in their region, they can contact me via email,, and I would be happy to help!

Adam Moss teaches fifth grade math at Arnold Memorial Elementary in Cleveland City Schools. He was named the East Grand Division Teacher of the Year in 2015 and has served on the Tennessee Department of Education’s Teacher Advisory Council as well as participated in SCORE’s Educator Fellowship.