While riding my bike this morning I thought about the at risk kids near our neighborhood who would benefit from making friends with math, sticking with it, rather letting fear get in the way. Math has a way of stopping people from reaching their highest dreams. What if you could dream big and go for whatever you want to do?
When a story is brought to mind and then encouraged a second time in an unrelated fashion I know it’s something that is aching to be written, so I’m trusting that the right person(s) will benefit by reading this.
I may have been a math teacher (now retired and tutoring), but in school I was not that student in the classroom raising an eager hand, answering those confusing questions the teacher asked. I was the one thinking “How can they possibly know what’s going on? The teacher made absolutely no sense.” And then the teacher carried on as if everyone else understood because that one student had mastered a barely presented concept.
Memory got me through math class along with a ton of hard work. It helped that I ignored fears and bulldozed through, even though I felt like a failure. I could fake through about 80% of the material and with partial credit got decent grades. But I didn’t really understand what was going on, so those one or two homework and test questions that required full knowledge remained a mystery. Sheer determination and failure to give up was what got me through. It helped when I didn’t dwell on what others thought about me.
I took a non-traditional path to teaching—working as a secretary, marrying the love of my life, staying home with three children born in four years and starting college after all of that while my husband watched the kids in the evening one or two nights a week. I may have been the only college student thinking about Mr. Snuffelupagus ( big bird’s imaginary friend) when the professor started talking about imaginary numbers😂🙃! Ignoring all doubts, I decided on a profession that had so many excess candidates that it didn’t seem like a reasonable choice. But math teachers were in demand so I chose the difficult path.
This time around, I asked questions, lots of them. And I realized that younger classmates were silently cheering me on because they didn’t know what the heck was going on either. I remember one of them saying with amazement “how do you have the balls to do that?”
I had faced crying toddlers, shopping on an extreme budget and living next door to my in laws. What did I have to fear from a college professor? And guess what? Most of those scary people didn’t act like I was dumb. After they got over their surprise, they seemed to appreciate someone trying hard to understand the material. I like to think that I taught them something about teaching.
I worked my behind off. Not literally, unfortunately. Lol. There were endless hours doing assigned problems, going to office hours for help, and working with other students if I happened to have time between classes. Otherwise it was at home during nap time or after the kids were asleep. Too bad it was before YouTube and Khan Academy.
I still felt that sense of not being smart enough and barely understanding the material. Talking to an incredibly smart man feels like laying bare your soul and hoping he/she won’t be an donkey and make you feel dumb. But if they did, I prided myself in sticking with it and silently telling myself they were jerks who shouldn’t be getting away with this. I secretly enjoyed when the mean ones got frustrated and kind of mad that I kept asking questions. I was like that honey badger who just wouldn’t quit.
Looking back I realize that I wasn’t dumb and that no person can make you feel that way except yourself. Read that sentence over again. Do NOT allow what you think the other person thinks or what they say cause you to give up. You are the only one who has that power, the power of believing in yourself. You will reject another person’s bad opinion if you believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself you reject compliments or words from people who believe in you. Other people do not decide how you feel about yourself, you do!
Do you want out? Do you want to change your situation for the better? Go for the long haul and reject doubts, even your own. Math can help you. There’s something about being moderately successful in math that makes the outside world think you’re smart and then you start feeling like it might be true.
Here’s one thing I learned in college, an epiphany of epic proportions. Those boxes with the theorems? They aren’t just for reading quickly and then going on to the examples. Work to understand everything that is being said. If you do that, The whole section/concept is yours. Read and reread that box, the theorem, and then see how it applies to the following example. Keep working until you understand everything about that example and how it applies to the theorem. If you don’t know the symbols, those pesky letter-like things that mean something, find out—ask! Rewrite the theorem with the words in them instead of the symbols, like “for all”. Exceptions, like x not equal to zero are important. They will show up in a problem or a test question that most people get wrong and don’t know why. I started doing so much better after that.
Also, I started realizing that math teachers/professors take shortcuts and assume you know what’s going on in the middle. Instead of saying or showing combining like terms, they do it in their head and a new line shows up out of nowhere—like magic. Go over those notes, figure out what happens between those two steps. Ask your friends, ask your teacher the next day, or get a tutor who can unravel the mystery. That’s real magic right there.
What might be holding you back is lack of prior skills that require learning. Do you know how many amazing YouTube videos there are? I had a 4.0 in a Masters in math education, but when I switched to high school after 20+ years of teaching middle school I spent time on YouTube and Khan Academy. I can tell you there was a lot of fear getting up in front of students when I didn’t remember or hadn’t fully remastered some concepts before teaching them. what if that’s the issue of your grumpy, seemingly patronizing math teacher?
If you don’t understand arcs, naming line segments, fractions, solving equations, etc. then watch a bunch of YouTube videos. Some are annoying or unhelpful but you’ll find that teacher who helps you if you stick with it. And remember that boring is not fatal to learning. We can’t all be Sesame Street type teachers. Listen to the words for content. Pause and rewind. watch it through several times. Just keep trying and learning no matter how far you need to go back. Because usually it’s not the new material that’s the problem. It’s the background knowledge and skills needed to understand the new material that gets in the way.
Don’t let math bully you. Don’t let an unapproachable, disapproving teacher stop you. They have issues of their own that spill out into their teaching. Did you know there is a hierarchy of smart with math teachers? Depending on which grade, which subject, there can be a feeling of less than for math teachers. But that originates in the mind, believing in yourself, or in the insecurities of those wanting to feel superior. Don’t buy into that. Prickly teachers are insecure creatures with their own problems.
Did you know that math is a foreign language? Think about it. All those letters, numbers, symbols and vocabulary require translation for most people. Students who succeed understand the language. Most teachers don’t understand that almost every student needs SUBSTANTIAL translation. Math is taught as if the language is simple rather than needing a guide to the language. Take time to study and learn the language. Keep asking those who understand the language to teach it to you.
For many, the teaching in the classroom is not enough. It takes time outside the classroom to keep up so that valuable skills do not cripple you in later concepts. When you give up and barely skate through in earlier grades, it has a snowball effect. The next topic is harder to understand when you need the skills that came before.
I said at the beginning that there was a second thing that happened to help me realize that this post was important. I just finished reading an incredible book by a first time author. It was a story of oppression, hope, hard work, overcoming and success. Fresh from feeling so inspired, I read the biography paragraph. She said she would have loved to be an astronomer if mathematical skills had allowed it. This broke my heart. Dreams are meant to be lived and brought to life.
Make friends with math. You don’t have to be besties. Work towards a friendship where you spend time together in communication rather than avoiding each other because of a quarrel. Tolerate and respect one another. Don’t fear math like big, scary beast waiting to devour you. Welcome a friend who will support and nurture you if given a chance.