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Confessions of a Math-Phobic Teacher

Confessions of a Math-Phobic Teacher

By Lisa Carey
December 15, 2015

I must confess something--I am fairly terrified of mathematics. I’m not particularly sure where this anxiety comes from, but it’s there. More concerning, math anxiety has been shown to pass from teachers to students.1 For the good of my students, I needed to address my math fears head on.

To me, math was not fun. Luckily, an extraordinary math teacher changed my mind. Enter bungee-jumping Barbies for teaching slope, data collection through basketball shoot-outs, gingerbread house building for geometry, and organizing a party to work on ratios, budgets, and estimation (she had me at bungee jumping Barbies). These great activities sucked me in (along with my students) and made me forget my fear of numbers.

As this astute math teacher pointed out, I’m great at mathematical thinking, as long as I don’t realize I’m doing math. The same thing goes for many of our students. Research has shown that neutralizing negative feelings toward math increases student ability.

So, if you’re a teacher with math anxiety (or even if you're great at math), read on to discover some of the great lessons I learned from my fellow math teachers that may help students realize how much fun learning math can be.

Math is a tool for looking at the world -- not a torture device.

I was co-teaching 6th grade math and we were doing pretty well. I’d make modifications to the lessons, add in manipulatives here, visuals there. We’d teach as a team. Enter the Common Core, which indicated that we needed to add more real-world word problems. 

My co-teacher decided that should be my job, so I shrugged and said, “OK.” Not knowing where to start, I just looked around and thought, “What questions in my life can be solved with math? Oh right, everything!” Our students helped me determine my car’s actual gas mileage, double and triple recipes for brownies, figure out how much time a long run might take, and if my run would be finished by dark.

My co-teacher helped me to see how often I was using math in my daily life and how non-threatening it really was. Even better, research indicates that female teachers who present as math phobic are more likely to reinforce gendered stereotypes about low math performance to their female students.1 By showing my students that I was comfortable with the math in my life, I avoided passing on my math phobias to the girls in our class.

Math is spatial.

One day, my co-teacher and I were discussing our students’ difficulty with plotting points on a coordinate plane. “Maybe it’s still too abstract,” we thought. “Maybe they need to see how they could use this.” We talked about Battleship, and then we happened to look at the floor. If you haven’t looked at your classroom floor in a while, I suggest you do so. Many schools have big square floor tiles, which are not very aesthetically pleasing, but very useful if you’re looking to create a giant coordinate plane or number line with electrical tape. The students loved it, and more importantly, their understanding of coordinate planes greatly improved.

Educators often talk about math manipulatives, but doing spatial activities is important for building foundational math skills and conceptualizations.  There is evidence that shows that deficits in foundational math skills are an antecedent for math anxiety.1 By creating a spatial learning activity, we had unknowingly stumbled upon a recommended math anxiety intervention.

The struggle is real. So are your teaching skills.

My final lesson came from a student who told me I was really good at explaining math when he was confused, and I was pretty taken aback. Unlike other subjects, math was hard for me to wrap my head around. So how could I be good at explaining it?

I realized that in laboring through my own mathematical thinking, I was forced to analyze my reasoning, check my misconceptions, and find alternative pathways for problem solving. This allowed me to quickly pinpoint where a student’s faulty logic had landed them in trouble. Often, being a good teacher means making your own rationale visible to your students.

To all of the teachers out there with math phobia, it’s going to be OK. Go find the nice math teacher down the hall and ask for their help. Accept that math can be fun! Math is a helpful tool, and your own struggles can benefit the students you teach and care about.  Happy teaching!

  1. Maloney, E.A., Beilock, S.L. (2012) Math anxiety: who has it, why it develops, and how to guard against it. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 16, 8. 

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