I'm the "I'm not a math person!" poster child, so it was with much hesitation and self-doubt that I begrudgingly agreed to fill in as a temporary middle school math teacher. Don't get me wrong- I think math education is incredibly important, but I felt woefully inadequate to be taking on a task as important as shaping the next generation of mathematicians. Six weeks later, at the end of my too-short career as a math teacher, I'm realizing that perhaps being a "non-math person" made me a better math teacher than I had anticipated.
I haven't always considered myself to be bad at math. It wasn't until it was time to memorize my times tables that I remember feeling badly about math. Suddenly, math became intimidating. For the first time in my young life, I had felt stupid. I couldn't recall a multiplication fact quickly enough, and I'd been embarrassed in front of the class. For most of my life, I've had anxiety about math.
So when it came time to teach math, I knew exactly what I didn't want for my students. I didn't want my students to feel like they're not good at math. I didn't want them to be intimidated by math. I didn't want them to grow up thinking that they're "not a math person." I've read enough mathematics education research to know that there's no such thing as a non-math person, and that it is our math education experiences that shape our mindsets about math. With the right math mindset, we can all learn and do math at high levels. I knew this on a theoretical level, and it made sense to me, but I'd never experienced a version of math education that wasn't anxiety-provoking. The thought of developing a math class that was unlike anything I had personally experienced was intimidating, to say the least.
We started the year with open-ended, multi-solution math tasks with many access points from YouCubed. I heard a lot of "I'm bad at math," "this is too hard!" and "I can't do this!" during our first two weeks. Slowly, though, the conversation changed. We started Jo Boaler's Inspirational Math, which includes an inspirational video to kick off each lesson, and math activities that emphasize the importance of math as patterns. We talked about the misconception that some people are "just math people" and how we can all become good at math. We emphasized the importance of making mistakes, and learned that our brains grow when we make mistakes (and we even started celebrating our mistakes!). We practiced making math visual, and realized that sometimes we can conceptualize math better when we draw or model it.
I noticed a decline in the frequency of students expressing negative self-perceptions of math, but didn't truly realize the impact that our math classes were having on students until my last week of teaching math, during student and parent goal-setting conferences. In one conference, a parent tearfully remarked that this year was the first time her child had said that he enjoyed math, after years of negative experiences in math classes. In another, a parent described that her child was so excited about our math tasks that she came home each day and enthusiastically described the task, and had asked for math manipulatives like the ones we used in class for her next birthday gift. Over half of my students, in their goal-setting conferences, said that they were enjoying math, with many explaining that math is not usually a subject they enjoy.
My students aren't the only ones who found themselves a bit surprised at their enjoyment of math. I became a math teacher, and a passionate advocate for whole-child mathematics education. I happily explained the philosophy I was adopting in my math classes to anyone who was willing to listen- coworkers, parents, tour groups, my friends. I never expected to love teaching math, and I certainly hadn't anticipated that I would be sad to leave my temporary teaching appointment. Teaching math confirmed my belief that math doesn't need to be painful, exclusionary, or anxiety-provoking. We can all learn to love math- or, for some of us, perhaps re-learn how to love math.