For teachers who fear math, banishing bad memories can help

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning.

At the start of her Math Methods course at Drexel University, Karen Greenhaus has a simple assignment for her pre-service early ed teachers: Write down how you feel about math.

The responses are enlightening — and often negative.

Students have told Greenhaus about upsetting experiences they had in elementary school math classes, how embarrassed and anxious they felt when they were confronted with math problems, and how those feelings led some to choose a major in college that did not require extensive math instruction.

“Math fear is a huge thing for teachers,” Greenhaus said.

This summer, I set out to learn more about math anxiety and how it can affect early ed teachers. I spent the better half of a humid week in July at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school for social work and early-childhood education in Chicago, learning about early math alongside child care workers and elementary teachers. My story on teachers conquering their math fears was published in partnership with the Education Reporting Collaborative.

For a lot of adults, math dredges up uncomfortable memories of standing in front of classrooms and reciting equations or multiplication tables. But for teachers, there’s an added layer of worry: How can they teach students math concepts without transferring their own discomfort with the subject?

“What happens is math gets shortchanged,” Greenhaus said. Throughout her course, Greenhaus encourages students in the class to feel better about math by focusing on learning the many ways to solve a given problem, such as by using manipulatives or other objects.

Research dating back decades has shown that educators are no more immune to math anxiety than their students. Some studies have found that teachers’ perceptions of math can negatively affect their students’ achievement.

In the early grades, math lessons should go beyond simple addition and subtraction to include more abstract concepts, like spatial awareness and how objects fit together to make shapes, said Lisa Ginet, director of program design and operations at Erikson. Early childhood educators do not necessarily have to be experts in advanced math, Ginet said, but they do need to know how those abstract ideas relate to mathematical thinking and later concepts.

At Erikson’s summer conference in Chicago, educators got hands-on math lessons they could take back to their classrooms. They played with blocks and watched demonstrations on how to work one-on-one with students who struggle with certain math concepts.

For Ivory McCormick, a first-grade teacher from Atlanta who always felt she was no good at math, working with her school’s new math specialist helped her gain confidence. At the conference, McCormick said she not only learned new strategies, but she also felt validated in the work she was already doing in her classroom.

“[Our math specialist] really opened my eyes to new ways of doing things and just made me appreciate math in a more general sense,” McCormick said. “And a lot of the things we’re doing are so foundational.”

Providing teachers with professional development in math is one way to boost their confidence and lower their anxiety. Another way to combat math fears is to address the problem before teachers enter the classroom by ensuring undergraduate and graduate programs provide a thorough grounding in math content rather than just in methods of teaching, said Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

“There seems to be much more emphasis in teacher preparation programs on preparing aspiring teachers to teach the mathematics, but not as much emphasis on preparing them to understand the foundational concepts of the mathematics,” Peske said. “And when teachers don’t understand the concepts of math, that’s when they’re anxious and worried about going to teach it.”

This story about fear of math was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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