Another Round

Exhausted and hungry, I walk to the restaurant a hundred feet from the hotel’s lobby. The hostess greets me and asks how my day has been. I tell her it’s been a long day, that I just came in from LA on a 5-hour-plus flight. She asks about my reason for being in Philadelphia. I tell her I’m here for a math conference, and she volunteers, “Oh… I’m not a big math person.”

I follow her to my table and want to say:

What the fuck does that even mean that you’re not a big math person??? Are you a small or minuscule math person then?!? I don’t care if you say that you’re not big on eating raw octopus or fried worms, but math??!!

Her nonchalant proclamation is the last thing I want to hear this evening. She doesn’t know that her words form the straw that breaks my mathematical patience’s back. I am hungry, how dare she! She doesn’t know that I hear the likes of that statement each and every time people learn I’m a math teacher.

I think about my keynote at 8 AM tomorrow and how I open with a story about running into a former Navy SEAL parent at the gym only to hear him confess he’s afraid to see me because I might ask him a math question.

So many people don’t like math — they are just not big math people.

My annoyance at her words quickly turns into sadness and guilt. I know I have students who may utter the same words leaving my class. While I believe I have made great strides in improving math learning and math teaching in my classroom, I haven’t done enough, there’s still a lot of work to do.

I can do better and I will, I get another round of teaching mathematics starting on August 22.

Have a restful summer, everyone.

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  1. Maureen H Sikora
    Posted June 21, 2018 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Hi Fawn, I feel your pain at those words. This year I started tutoring a Junior in high school algebra 2. She has some learning issues, and difficulty with her memory. But I can tell you, from the way she had to learn algebra 2 this year, I can now understand the statement of that hostess. It was awful to watch this girl that I tutor, try so hard, and fail each test. No modifications made to help with her memory, no basic skills review to help her go over her weaknesses in simple pre-algebra concepts (like adding integers) that forced her to rely on a calculator. When she failed, there was no expectation that she go over the concepts that she didn’t understand, and the teacher just continued onto the next lesson as if everyone understood it. Her teacher often making comments that “if you fail the bench mark, you will probably fail the final.” What hope does that give any of those struggling? There was no way for her to even try to make sense out of her answers to solving polynomial equations or to connect it to anything at all in her life. Unfortunately, her experience is more common and this is why we end up with people hating it. Our schools need to do better to help people like her, and to help make math more meaningful and not just about trying to do well on a standardized test to get into college.

    • Susan Townsend
      Posted June 22, 2018 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      Soooo many ‘how not to teach math so students actually learn math not to mention LOVE math’ in your student’s story! Your story also tells me you DID provide some positive math memories for your student!

    • Fawn
      Posted June 22, 2018 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

      Hi Maureen, thank you for sharing. School mathematics just doesn’t resemble what doing real mathematics entails. It’s disheartening to witness the cycle of defeat for students who lack “basic skills” as the gap widens with each passing year. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just because students lack grade-level computational skills does not mean they lack thinking and problem-solving skills. If we continue to focus on correct answers and speed, then these kids are doomed. I appreciate your dropping in.

  2. Armon Kauffman
    Posted June 21, 2018 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Hi Fawn. I still hear former students say how they were not good in math. Rarely do I hear how much they enjoyed math. After 42 years I am still working to be the best math teacher I can be. Have you thought about adding to the between 2 numbers? My higher students enjoyed them. Enjoy your summer.

    • Fawn
      Posted June 22, 2018 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

      Hi Armon, thank you for writing. I am thankful that most of my students seem to enjoy math, and I hope they continue to find beauty and applications in mathematics all around them. Yes, I hope to add many more entries to B2N, I just need the time and already know that it won’t happen this summer. How about you have your students contribute? :)

  3. Elizbeth Baker
    Posted June 21, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    You are wonderful, smart, funny a such a thoughtful math teacher. You have made me a better math teacher and teacher to “math want to be teachers”. Thank you a million times over the years. Have a good relaxing summer.

    • Fawn
      Posted June 22, 2018 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Elizabeth. So kind of you to say. I’m grateful for our online math community as I only have one math colleague at my school, and not having a common prep time nor having a common math subject, we just don’t get to collaborate. I hope your summer is the best one yet. <3

  4. Wendy Kozina
    Posted June 21, 2018 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    I hear ya, Fawn! There are two wishes I share with parents at open house…1) Never accept that their student is “bored in math class”…I request that they follow up with asking their student, “What challenge do you need so you can feel more successful?” And 2) When their student comes to them for math help that they do not respond, “I’m not good at math!” I share a story about how my mom did that to me, and all I wanted was for her to just try to work things out with me. Parents set their kids up to quit when they opt out due to the statement, “I’m not a math person.”
    I saw a great poster that said, “How to be a math person…Step 1: Do Math (any kind) Step 2: Be a person.”

    • Fawn
      Posted June 22, 2018 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

      Hi Wendy. My last slide at BTSN also begs parents to refrain from saying that they’re not good at math because I’m afraid students may think it’s all genetics. I’m glad you brought up parents, connecting with them is always important. I never feel I do enough of this, but next year when I teach only grade 6 (instead of grades 7 and 8 like this year), I’m hoping to do a better job with parent communication, and I mean in addition to using the text app “Remind,” parental access to Google Classroom, and posting grades online. I need to connect with them about how their student is contributing to class discussions. Yes, I saw that poster recently too, should get one for the classroom. Thank you so much for dropping in, Wendy.

  5. BeaNice
    Posted June 22, 2018 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    I think you answered your own question. Like the navy seal she didn’t want a pop quiz. Did you ask her what subjects she did excel in? My guess is that she has some other areas of knowledge that you may not be good at. Why are you, and other teachers so insulted by this? Accountants are not insulted by such comments. Many other professionals who use math take these types of statements as a compliment. They have a skill that not many possess.
    If students say this I could understand your anx, but when it is an adult let it go.

    • Fawn
      Posted June 22, 2018 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

      Hi BeaNice, thank you for dropping in. (There were 3 almost identical comments from you, I kept the one with the latest time stamp.) The point of my post is that I blame myself who is a math teacher (hence my comment about feeling sad and guilty), I blame how math is typically taught in school, I blame a system of misplaced focus on standardized testing and tracking. When students don’t get the right answers or get them as quickly as their peers in a math class, they feel kind of dumb, their self-worth diminishes with every interaction with math. We math teachers — not accountants, not actuaries, not statisticians — still get a little jolted by this all-too-common statement because we highly suspect that their dislike of math had roots in school mathematics which had failed them. How many students, especially female students, who were discouraged from STEM fields because of their bad experience in learning maths?

  6. Pat Ciula
    Posted June 24, 2018 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Saw this on Pinterest and thought of you-

    How to be a Math Person:
    Step 1: Do math (any type).
    Step 2: Be a person.

  7. Pat Ciula
    Posted June 24, 2018 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Aw, I shoulda read all the other comments first! Sorry for the duplicate!

  8. Posted June 25, 2018 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    On a similar note – I work part-time as a DJ at a college radio station. One of the students who works there told me that she was afraid to talk to me when she found out I teach math. What other profession has this effect on people? Would she be scared to talk to me if I was an architect? A car mechanic? A dentist? ugh

  9. Donna M Mockenhaupt
    Posted September 1, 2018 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    AAAARRRRGGGHHH! This is my BIGGEST pet peeve. The next time someone feels the need to share that with me I’m going to reply, “Yea…I’m not much of an English person.” And to answer BeaNice…the reason why teachers of math do not like this statement is because our students hear this so often from adults in their lives. It gives them permission to not persevere when struggling in math. Never would you hear that in the study of English, reading, comprehension… I can’t tell you how many conferences I have had where parents will state in front of their child, “Oh he’s/she’s like me…I am not a math person.” What does that tell the child?

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