on teaching math and internalizing stereotypes

two warnings: this is totally not a valentine’s day post, and it’s going to be wordy. but i think it’s really, really important – important enough that it took me two hours to fall asleep because these words were just flying around in my head.

yesterday, in my course on contemporary education, i was talking with the secondary master’s student (a man) next to me, doing what pre-service teachers love to do: sharing student teaching war stories. i shared my story of a student crying when i was filming for my supervisor, he shared having a student cry in the hallway after he confiscated her cell phone. then he said, “most elementary school teachers aren’t very good at math, in my experience.”

okay. social faux-pas aside, there are a lot of problems with what he said to me. first of all, anecdotes do not equal evidence – so i took his tagging that “in my experience” onto the end of his statement to be his attempt at saying “maybe i’m wrong” – but he didn’t seem to think so, nor did he notice the look of shock/horror/rage that flickered across my face. second, and this was pointed out by my boyfriend, this is an implicitly sexist statement. the majority of elementary school teachers (if a glance around the cohort i’m working with is any indication) are women*. and third, beliefs like that are why so many people struggle with math confidence.

i’ve never been confident in my math skills. my dad is a math teacher who worked hard to help me see that my lack of confidence was not related to a lack of actual ability. i’m 26, and i still get anxiety when i get up in front of a room of students to teach them about adding two-digit numbers.it’s not because i don’t know how to add two-digit numbers. it’s because i remember being in third grade, and the sinking feeling i got in my stomach because what i was learning was totally new to me. i had heard about this brave new venture from older friends, and they’d all promised me that it was not easy. my teacher, whom i adored (in third grade? she was the best), knew this stuff really well, and i wanted to impress her, but she also knew it in the way that you and i know this math now – automatically. and it is not an easy task to teach something that is second nature to you to a crop of people who have no idea what you’re talking about. and i think that’s the part that a lot of people who look down their noses at elementary school teachers forget – even if math is something that comes more naturally to you, at one point, you did not know math. it was a new language, a new territory. for a lot of students, that novelty brings up this tiny but powerful voice that says “you can’t do this”. it’s taken me a long, long time to learn how to silence that voice. and still, it occasionally roars.

now that i’m in my final semester before i walk into my own classroom, i have more perspective on this voice. plenty of people assume that, because the data shows it, women must be inferior when it comes to performance in math. okay, fine. there are lots of studies. but please, for a moment, imagine that you have grown up female in a world that assumes you will do worse in math than any man you meet, and not only that, but that your failing is totally normal. some questions for you: how often do you think you’ll meet an authority figure who flat-out tells you that you won’t fail? and do you truly think that you won’t assume that maybe, just maybe, the world is right about you? because of your gender? and would you be at all motivated to try to fight against a machine that is the size of the world? trust me when i say – you do not need anyone to tell you that you won’t do well at math. that assumption is implicit in every interaction you’ll have. from teachers who ask you a question in math, then answer it for you, to casual jokes in popular culture, the assumption that women are naturally unable to succeed in math is just part of our culture.

so what can we do? here’s my personal opinion – and part of my teaching philosophy. i think that it is my job to help my students break down the assumptions made about them the moment they were born. gender, race, family dynamic, religion, sexuality – so many pieces that make up who we are affect how the world views us. it’s ridiculous. it’s infuriating. and if i can get even one student to start believing that the rest of the world is wrong about his or her abilities, i’ll be proud. there is a power that you feel when someone (for me, it was my dad) tells you that you are, in fact, smart. that you can succeed. that it’s bad enough that the world doesn’t believe in you – you don’t need to help the world out at all. as it turns out, it’s kind of hard to believe in your ability to break through the biases and stereotypes that are your social and cultural molds, especially when no one else expresses a belief in you. some people can do that – believe in themselves when everyone else doesn’t. props to those people. i am not one of them. i think it’s my responsibility as a teacher not only to open my students’ eyes to what the world might think of them, but to do it in such a way that they realize how wrong the world is. and that their education, and what they do with it, will begin, bit by bit, to change the world’s opinion.

how to finish this? going back to the man who told me that elementary school teachers are bad at math. i have choice words for you, sir. i’ll leave them to the imagination. instead, let me say this. you probably don’t realize that your words have power. not yet. maybe you’ll figure that out one day. but they really do. last night, they had the power to make me angry. next year, they may have the power to upset a female colleague. be careful about that. every time you accept what the world tells you, you reinforce the already pretty solid stereotypes that break down self-esteem and keep people from achieving what is possible. and one last plug for the importance of elementary education: it may not be calculus (i am pretty sure it would be disastrous if i tried to teach a calculus class), but my job is to help students who are totally new to the way in which symbols (1, 2, 3, +, -) interact with and relate to each other. it’s easy for me to know the material, but it is hard to teach it in such a way that it is relevant, interesting, and permanent.

*According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 76% of public school teachers (in 2011) were female. and a survey from the same year by the National Center for Education Information showed that percentage to be 84%.