You Think You’re Not a Math Person? Neither Did I.

Courtney Flessner with math posterIf you’ve ever sat in on a professional development session with me, you’ve heard my spiel, “From here on out, you’re a math person. Even if you feel you have no connection to mathematics, you need to channel your inner actor or actress and become a math person. Your students know how you feel about it, and they will feed off the energy about math you bring to your classroom.”

Somehow, over time, it has become socially acceptable to say, “I’m not a math person.” Or, “Numbers? Yuck. I don’t do those.” We see it in movies, TV shows, and advertisements. We hear it on podcasts and in everyday conversation.  I find myself constantly wondering why statements like this are allowable while here in the U.S., careers in STEM are likely to grow twice as much as those in any other occupation in the next decade. Is it possible that teacher beliefs and their own math teaching identities will impact the ability to fill these positions? Possibly. Are you reading this and thinking that’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever read? That’s cool, but read on.

Through my own personal experience as a teacher, instructional coach, administrator, and consultant whose primary focus is elementary mathematics, I can enthusiastically say I believe that one’s beliefs about the teaching and learning of mathematics matter. However, I think some might roll their eyes and think, “Sure, of course she has a positive attitude about the teaching and learning of mathematics. She’s a math person.”

The truth is, despite my ongoing ability to wax poetic about the beauty of teaching mathematics and how in fact, numbers are actually kind of awesome,  I still struggle with thinking I’m a “math person.” I took three years of math in high school. I took the easiest math classes in undergrad I could. I was completely turned off, stressed out, and annoyed by the subject. It wasn’t until I was working on my PhD in mathematics education that I realized why:

It was because of how I was taught. And this is exactly why I do what I do.

I have vivid memories of my high school Algebra teacher shaking his head at my questions. I was tested for learning disabilities because of that class (I do not have learning disabilities). I don’t know why he shook his head at my questions, and I do not know why he recommended I be tested; however, as an educator who spends a lot of time considering how humans, of all ages, think, learn, and teach, it’s possible he did so because I didn’t think like he did about math. It’s also possible he didn’t understand why – it’s what worked for him!

When I started teaching in 1997, I knew right away I was not prepared to teach math. My solution was to do the best I could, with what I knew, and then work to learn more. However, seven years, six different grade levels, four schools, and three cities later, I was pretty much still doing what I had done my first year- teaching the same way I was taught. I stood in front of my students, showed them how to solve problems, and then asked them to mimic what I had done. I was using a new math series that offered up different algorithms to teach kids, but I was still telling them the steps of the algorithm and assigning them to do the exact same thing I had done.

Meanwhile, in reading, they were reading rich texts at levels appropriate for them. I was conferring with them one-on-one or meeting with them in small groups for guided reading and word work. They also met in their own small groups to engage in conversations about what they were reading. They all had a reading notebook that held lists of the books they were reading, books they wanted to read, and authentic reactions to and comments about what they were reading – to which I responded each week. During math instruction, I never asked one question what they were thinking about and spent most of the time telling them how to think about the problems in front of them. I did this, even though I knew that way of teaching mathematics did not work for me.

Why wasn’t I teaching math with a similar pedagogical approach as I did reading? Because I wasn’t comfortable teaching math. I wasn’t a “math person.” After seven years of this, I started to realize this really wasn’t ok.

In college, I started dating someone who liked numbers. We’d be driving down the road and he’d make number sentences out of the time (If it’s 5:41 then 5-4= 1, and all is right in the world). I thought this was weird, was annoyed when he insisted that I too make number sentences, but also charmed at his persistence to have fun with him. His fondness of numbers led him to embark on a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction and teach math methods courses; I remained in the classroom, annoyed that he was bringing home “fluffy” ideals about teaching math. A common response to his ideas in our house was, “You have lost all perspective of teachers. We don’t have time to teach like that. The kids will never get it. It’s all too fluffy.”

Secretly, though, I was going to school and trying some things out. I was terrible at teaching math. I was embarrassed at how different it was from ELA time in my classroom. I knew I was stifling my own students. I will never forget the first time I remember actually asking a child how he solved a problem. It was 9 +7. Nines were the WORST. I, at almost the age of 30, was still counting on my fingers to make sure my sum was correct. I was terrible at my nines. I never passed my nines test. This kid? He said he just turned the 9 into a 10 to make it easier to add the 7, and then took 1 away from 17 to make up for changing the 9 to a 10.

9 + 7 = ?
10 + 7 = 17
17 – 1 = 16

I was incredulous. You can do that? Over the course of the next several days, I asked a lot of questions. Other kids solved 9+7 by taking one from the 7 to make 10 and then adding 6.

9 + 7 = ?
7 = 6 + 1
9 + 1 = 10
10 + 6 = 16

Or they would take 3 from the 9 to make 10 then add 6.

9 + 7 = ?
9 = 3 + 6
7 + 3 = 10
10 + 6 = 16

Over and over again, when I asked my students how they solved problems, I was in awe of their thinking.

Their thinking is not fluffy. It is actually who they are as mathematicians, and it’s my job to honor that thinking.”

I realized that my number one responsibility to them as their math teacher was to ask questions in order to find out how they were thinking about the problem before I determined what I was going to teach them. In the early years, this was really hard. What if they responded with an idea that I didn’t understand? What if I didn’t know what to say after they shared? I realized that part of my own work was going to have to be about better understanding how children think about numbers and solve problems. Indeed, their thinking is not fluffy. It is actually who they are as mathematicians, and it’s my job to honor that thinking.

I didn’t make quick and easy changes to my math teaching. I chose to take risks on some concepts, but do what I felt was safe on others. As I moved into leadership roles, I was still learning. I was still trying new things with kids and encouraging teachers to do the same. I did a lot of co-teaching and planning to inspire myself and my colleagues. I worked hard to connect my math pedagogy to my reading and writing pedagogy and realized there was enormous amounts of overlap.  Making those connections helped me as a learner. The more success I had, the more success the teachers and students I was working with had.

Children in the classrooms I was in referred to themselves as math people. They eagerly volunteered to share their mathematical thinking even though they knew perhaps no other student would have done the same thing. They engaged in mathematical discourse without prompt from the teacher. They were doing math because the adults in the room with them believed they were all math people with incredible ideas to contribute to solving problems. They were learning math because they were being pushed out of their comfort zone and forced to think.

Research tells us that when people of any age are pushed out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in our brain form stronger connections. These stronger connections, over time, make people smarter and better at math. Simultaneously,  I was becoming better at teaching math. I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone, learning a lot about how to help children connect with math, and possibly even becoming a “math person.”

When a clear need for more math professional development became prevalent, I felt like an imposter. That was not a job for me. I am not a math person. I was counting on my fingers to add when I was almost thirty. However, teachers and schools were asking, so I started visiting schools. I realized I needed to approach teaching adults the same as I did elementary aged children: ask questions, find out what they know, and move them forward. More importantly, just like I took a risk and believed I could become a good math teacher, I had to do the same and believe I could become a good teacher of teachers. You can believe you are a math person. You can believe you can make changes to your classroom mathematics teaching. In doing so, you are helping your students believe they can too, and they are getting better at math.

We are all born with mathematical abilities. My journey to identifying as a “math person” has, I would say, been in the works since I was a 14-year-old freshman in high school taking Algebra. Essentially, I was labeled unsuccessful thereby making math something, in which I would never thrive. My environment dictated my feelings about math. Many years went by where I subscribed to the narrative of not being a math person. In my adult teaching life, my environment still dictated my feelings about math. However, my environment changed.  The combination of having someone at home modeling sheer joy of numbers and a realization I was failing my students as their teacher, encouraged me to work to reidentify. Why not? What I was doing as a teacher was not working. Changing my mindset about how I felt about the teaching and learning of mathematics was certainly worth a try, and it changed everything about my math teaching.

You think you’re not a math person? That’s ok. But from here on out, you need to channel your inner actor and actress and be a math person. While you’re doing that, take some risks, ask some questions, and make some tiny changes. One day, you too might find yourself making number sentences out of the time on the clock. Just the other night, I was watching TV with my husband, and it showed the door of an apartment. The apartment number was 1812. 1 to the power of 8 plus 1 equals 2. I came up with that one all by myself.

Bring Courtney to your school for custom professional development.