Having Math Anxiety May Make Me a Better Math Teacher

Growing up I had many terrible experiences with math, which started when I moved schools mid-way through the year in grade three.  At my old school we hadn’t learned about multiplication yet.  In my new school, they were already on division.  Skipping that step in my math learning haunted me through high school.  My parents even hired  tutors along the way and I still struggled.  I have vivid memories of feeling my mind shutting down, having sweaty palms, a racing pulse and my eyes glazing over.  Even as an adult, I refuse to keep score in a card game in social situations.  Math is not something that comes easily to me.  However, I do believe that having this experience gives me an understanding of how my students feel when they find math tough.  Math anxiety is real and it is horrible but I think it may make me a better teacher.

After twenty years of teaching in the early primary grades (mostly because I was afraid to teach junior math), I have made the jump to grades 4 and 5.  I admit when I first started my long range planning this year, I was more than a little intimidated.  However, I am pleased to say that I have a fabulous group of helpful and understanding colleagues, have discovered some informative professional web sites such as http://www.youcubed.org  and have had access to professional learning through my school board.  I’m starting to gain some confidence.  I also believe that the hands-on math teaching that I did with my primary students has given me insight into how to make math more accessible. Knowing how children develop their math skills at an early age helps me to see where gaps might be in the learning of the junior students.

My passsions and teaching strengths have always been language and the arts.  When I first began teaching it was actually called “Language Arts”.  This week I had a student say to me, “You must really love math.  It seems like we are always doing it.”  I laughed out loud and said, “I’ve been called a lot of things, but a “math” teacher isn’t one of them!”  I’ve shared my personal story about math anxiety with my students.  I have assured my students that there will be no competitive math facts games in my classroom and no timed tests.  Being good at math doesn’t mean being fast at math.  Actually,  I don’t have math tests at all in my classroom.  I call them assessments and they aren’t always paper and pencil tasks.  Recently, my students showed their learning of growing patterns using manipulatives in the photos below.  This was only one part of the assessment but it provides an example of how we can still use those visible learning hands-on opportunities in the junior grades.  It was also uploaded to their digital portfolios and communicated to families immediately.

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I am committed to developing a growth mindset about teaching and learning math.  I’ve learned about the myth of the “math person”. I’ve learned that our brains continue to grow and change with math challenges and not with answers that come easily. I am not afraid to admit that there are times when I ask colleagues for help to ensure that I am solving problems correctly myself so that I can then teach my students.  There are times when my students have found a different way to solve a problem and there are times when they have pointed out mistakes in my calculations.  We encourage owning our mistakes in our classroom and being ok about it. We learn more deeply when we make and then correct our errors.  Our classroom is changing our vocabulary to have a growth mindset about math.  When they encounter a difficult problem in our classroom the students say, “I don’t get this…yet.”  I may not see myself as a mathematician “yet” but I will continue to demonstrate empathy to those who struggle and model a growth mindset to my students.  Each lesson that I teach will help to silence the words of my grade 12 math teacher as he handed back my mid-term exam and said, “Guess your parents wasted good money on that tutor.”

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Updated: October 7, 2017 — 7:53 pm

The Author

Michelle Fenn

I am a teacher with the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board and will be teaching a combined class of grades 4-5. I have been teaching for over 20 years. I am going back to the junior grades after what feels like a lifetime in the primary grades. I feel like a brand new teacher again! The arts are my true passion in teaching and in life. I use technology extensively in my classroom and I may have a bit of an obsession with professional learning. I have been mucking about in inquiry for the last few years and every day is new and exciting. When I grow up I want to be Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus.

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