You’re not.

We have all said it at one point or another. If you haven’t, I applaud you. Growing up, math was never easy for me, but I was always up for the challenge. I think around Algebra 2 I started to lose interest because I could not see the real world application.

Now I am preparing to be a secondary math teacher, and people are often intrigued as to why I chose math. All I can think is, if I were a man, would you even ask me this question?

I have worked in schools for the past two years and have heard countless times from teachers, tutors, and staff alike: “I’m bad at math.” It is almost always from women. Women are the majority of educators, yet most secondary math and science teachers are male.

Before you know it, students are saying they are bad at math. What they hear becomes what they know. Math is often times a student’s first encounter with academic adversity. Educators try to empathize and say “it’s okay, I’m not good at math either.” This only projects and perpetuates our insecurities to the next generation of learners and leaders.

Instead, we should say:

I’m glad you’re challenged. If you’re not challenged, you’re not learning, and if you’re not learning, what are you doing here?”

Math is a huge insecurity for many people. It’s a lot like learning a new language. If you make errors along the way, your final answer can make zero sense. Pretty scary. We don’t want to be wrong; we don’t want to mess up; we don’t want to fail. Makes sense.

Here is what baffles me: people, women especially, are so scared of being wrong that they would rather proclaim incompetence than be challenged in any way. Rather than say “yeah this math is hard, but I can do it.” they are saying “Nope, math is not for me.” 

Discovery-based learning is becoming a big buzzword in education, and math is no exception. There is no longer a need for only one right answer or one right strategy. In discovery-based learning, students are challenged to find various solutions and troubleshoot along the way. This paradigm shift can and will help students not only make real world connections with math, but also get excited about it.

Numbers don’t have to be scary – they can be empowering. Numbers are at the heart of everything we do – from spending money, to driving to work, to planning vacations – every aspect of our lives requires some version of math. I don’t believe there should be one number that dictates your life – you should pull from a broad data set to derive your own unique meaning. Numbers are what you make of them.

We need to develop a growth mindset for math that we seem to find easy in other aspects of our lives. For example, learning to drive is SCARY. I remember the first two months I had my permit, I refused to drive out of a parking lot because I was too scared. Did I want to just quit? Yes. Did I? No! I knew with more practice, I would improve. As I improved, so did my confidence. And as my confidence rose, my competence excelled. Why can’t we have this same growth mindset with math?

I am excited to be a math teacher so that I can start to reframe how students interact with numbers and data. A quote that I often share with students when they say how bad they are at math is the following:

“Whether you think you can or cannot, you are right” -Henry Ford.

I share it to help them shift from a fixed mindset to one of growth.

Stop saying you’re bad at math – until you stop, you will…well…be bad at math.

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