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How to be a math teacher, even if you aren’t a “math person”

To overcome their own math anxiety, teachers don’t need to become math whizzes; they simply need to create an environment where mistakes are okay.

6 min read

Voice of the Educator

How to be a math teacher, even if you aren’t a “math person”

Allison Shelley/Deeper Learning

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Math anxiety isn’t just an issue for students. As a director of curriculum, instruction, and staff development, I’ve encountered countless teachers with math anxiety, or at least some anxiety around teaching the subject to students. The techniques for overcoming math anxiety are the same for teachers as for students, but the keys to overcoming anxiety about teaching math — or teaching through the anxiety — are simple: encourage multiple approaches to problem-solving and don’t be afraid to be a learner yourself.

Math isn’t everyone’s favorite

It’s not terribly surprising that elementary school teachers are sometimes anxious about teaching math. We tend to choose liberal arts and psychology as majors in college, a bit more than math and science. While I enjoyed math growing up and felt confident learning it, I myself have a degree in theater. Even teachers who were confident as student mathematicians can feel a little daunted by higher-level math concepts if we haven’t practiced them since high school.

For my teaching credential, I had to take one math methods course. Fortunately, teaching is a profession of lifelong learning and we all have the opportunity for continued training and professional development. Nevertheless, that leaves it largely up to teachers to decide for themselves that they want to devote part of that education to becoming better math teachers rather than, say, becoming better at teaching kids how to read, which is every bit as challenging as teaching math and closer to many elementary teachers’ hearts.

Finally, there’s been a shift in the way we teach math that likely falls sometime between when a teacher was learning math themselves and when they are teaching it to their own students. Years ago, we taught a lot of procedural fluency skills that students were likely to need later. We were preparing them for things like understanding their grocery receipt and monthly credit card statement or paying their taxes.

Now, we are preparing them for STEM courses and careers, and there’s much more focus on conceptual fluency. When I was a student, my teachers only needed me to follow a process. They could get away with saying things like, “Ours is not to wonder why, but just invert and multiply.” Today, teachers need their students to understand the concepts that make the process work.

Process Is problem-solving

While that shift in focus may make some teachers a bit apprehensive, it also shows the way forward. One common reason behind math anxiety is the fear of being wrong. At the end of a math problem, you either have the correct answer or you don’t.

But if students are working through math trying to figure out how to work with concepts to arrive at their own process, there are suddenly multiple approaches to getting it “right.” Essentially, math stops being about “answer-getting” and starts being about problem-solving.

I could teach a whole classroom of students the method I learned for solving this or that kind of math problem, and they might be able to answer a lot of questions correctly with some practice. But if we teach them several different methods — or better yet, let them figure out their own approaches — they begin to grasp the underpinnings of mathematics.

One tool we use to get kids to create their own problem-solving approaches to mathematics is ST Math. It’s a self-paced program that uses spatial-temporal puzzles to introduce mathematical concepts. Students have to move a penguin, JiJi, from one side of the screen to the other. As they attempt to solve each puzzle, they receive informative feedback whenever they’re wrong so that they can come up with new strategies to solve the problem.

Teachers helping students with this program aren’t focused on procedural math at all. They ask questions like, “What have you tried? Why didn’t things work, and what does that tell you about what might? What else can you try?”

Even better, students can and do ask each other these kinds of questions, helping each other develop a conceptual understanding of math before they even have the mathematical language to explain it all.

And that is, in practice, the number one piece of advice I’d offer any teacher nervous about teaching math: learn to ask good questions and then stand back and watch.

In a classroom of 25-30 students, you’re going to have unique approaches to solving any problem. Some of them are going to look really weird, too! Maybe one kid uses a number line and another uses tally marks or some other representation. If they get the answer wrong, that’s okay, because when they explain their process, their conceptual understanding will become clearer and you can get an idea where they need a little help.

If they get it right using a process you’ve never thought of before — and this has happened to me, a math person, teaching first and second graders — then you’ve learned some unique way to think of a simple math problem.

As teachers, it’s ultimately not important whether we’re “good” at math or not. What matters is that we create a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes because they’re opportunities to learn. If you make mistakes as you teach math — well, what could be more wonderful for your students than to see their teacher as a learner?

Elaine Keeley is the director of curriculum, instruction, and staff development at Merced City School District, where one of their mathematics tools is ST Math. She can be reached at [email protected].


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