Do your students know you LOVE math? Do they think you even LIKE math? All too often negative attitudes about mathematics start with the negative feelings teachers (and other influential adults) pass on to their young students. As a mathematics methods teacher at a university I am well aware of how pervasive and even debilitating these attitudes can be. Students who enter my classroom as college seniors are not afraid to express their fear of a course syllabus that includes division of fractions and alternative algorithms. In fact, my own fear of mathematics as a college student and an elementary classroom teacher is what eventually led me to my field of study. I was determined that my students would have a more positive experience with math than I did. Learning to love math as a teacher, and in turn teaching your students to love math, often means rethinking math instruction as you’ve always seen it. Students pick-up on and often imitate your attitude. Make sure they are learning that you LOVE (or are at least learning to LOVE) math by eliminating these clues from your curriculum.
5 Clues that Let your Students Know you Don’t like Math:
“I’m Not a Math Person”: I always get a mixed response when I tell strangers what I do. The phrase, “I teach math,” is usually met with the same facial expression as if I’d explained, “I taste test dog food.” In fact, being the math teacher and researcher I am, I have kept track of these responses. Out of the strangers I’ve talked to in my community, on airplane flights, and even educational settings within the past 18 months, only 1 out of dozens has responded positively to my profession. Why? My belief is that we as a society have accepted a dislike towards mathematics. “I’m just not a math person,” is something I frequently hear from others. Consider what would happen if you, as a teacher, said this about reading. “I’m just not really a reading person,” sounds absurd and would likely be met with fierce criticism. Even if you don’t enjoy a good math problem like you do a good book, don’t devalue mathematics, especially in front of your students. Make sure that your students know you are a math person by pointing out the many times we use math during the day. Your class might read a thermometer, count how many days until Friday, or even calculate how many minutes until recess. These are all important mathematical tasks.
Spending Less Time on Math: Spending less time on mathematics than on other subjects is a sure way to let your students know that you don’t value mathematics. If math is something you have to “get through” each day students get the message loud and clear that math isn’t important. Be sure to carve an appropriate amount of time out of your day for mathematics study. Once you’ve worked on making this time interesting and valuable it may even start to take up more of your day than you’ve planned for.
Sudden Change in Teaching Methods: This is one I have to say I’m guilty of. As a teacher during my first few years in the classroom I knew my math teaching wasn’t up to par, but I didn’t know how to improve it. My reading instruction was woven in throughout all the other subjects I taught. I often brought in outside resources to supplement stories we were reading as a class and my students knew from the way I talked about reading and the books I was reading that I really loved and valued them as readers. Math in turn was usually a series of timed tests and worksheets completed during the set math time each day. The dual teaching personalities I exhibited to my students and my great discomfort with this dichotomy was what drove my search for better methods. In order to strengthen your ability to teach elementary math search out reputable resources and trainings such as the Elementary Mathematics Teachers Academy. Also, search out mathematics experts in your school district and find out what support and resources are available to you.
Different expectations: Without realizing it teachers, even teachers who are conscious about equity issues, treat students differently. Some have expectations that boys are better at math than girls. Others value students who complete math quickly over students who take more time. Others prefer students who follow prescribed algorithms and show their work to students who arrive at correct answers through mental processes. Think about how you respond to students during math, what expectations you have for them, and why you have these expectations. Considering and valuing the mathematical processes of your students will make you a much more insightful math teacher. I often plan my math lessons based on the questions I predict students will ask and the different ways they will each think about the problem.
Belief in the Math Gene: “Our family just isn’t good at math,” was something I heard from more than one parent at parent-teacher-conference as an elementary teacher. I can’t help but cringe every time I hear a student or parent of a struggling math student use this phrase. Please know and let others know that your genetic makeup may limit you from ever having naturally blonde hair, but it does not determine your mathematics abilities. Often helping students learn to LOVE math also means working to dispel their own negative beliefs about their abilities and helping them learn to LOVE themselves and believe in their own potential. Struggling math students are often those students who don’t “see” math in the clean linear way teachers teach them to. Take time to get to know and complement the unique mathematical thinking of each of your students.
All students (and teachers) are capable of doing well in mathematics. Make sure this is the message you are sending your students.