I Can’t, Shouldn’t Be the First to Believe

There is a comment I’ve gotten frequently from students, and it’s an absolute compliment, but one that tears me apart.

“You’re the first teacher who believed I could do math.”

In one way or another, that’s one of the most common responses I get in my end of year report card from students each year, or in cards or emails from students. I am thrilled on one hand that they felt I believed in them, because that is one of my biggest goals. I absolutely believe that everyone can learn math, that everyone can always learn new and more challenging math. I’ve held this belief for just about all of my teaching career, and it’s driven so much of my approach to my classes. So, I’m glad that that got through to students.

And yet…

Am I really the first teacher that believed in these students? Some of these students were in 9th grade, some were in 12th grade, some in between, but am I to really believe that each of them had teachers all the way through elementary/middle school that gave up on them? In fact, I know for a fact that many of the students did have other teachers that saw their potential and did believe in them, but somehow they did not get that message. Why is that?

Sometimes, the words of a single teacher can have such an impact that they color the words of every teacher that comes after. A 3rd grade teacher who tells a student that maybe she’ll never be any good at math because she can’t memorize her times tables. A 5th grade teacher who tells a student who struggles with fractions that at least he is good at other things like reading and art. An 8th grade teacher who tells a student that maybe Algebra just may be too hard for her, but at least she’s cute and can get help from boys on her homework. These are all stories I’ve heard from students, and their impact can be life changing. The words of a teacher, at the right time and in the right context, can dramatically change the perception that a student has about his or her abilities – for better or for worse.

It is easy to throw elementary school teachers (and to a lesser degree middle school teachers) under the bus. After all, they’re the ones who did all this damage, right? And they aren’t even really math teachers. Most of them don’t like math, and have a phobia about it, and shouldn’t be teaching. It is so tempting to complain about their inadequacies, which is what I often did early in my career. I even had anecdotal evidence – when I’d attend a math education conference, high school teachers were there because they wanted to go, and elementary school teachers were there because their administrators made them go. It was such a tempting mindset, until I realized that I was doing nothing to improve things, just complaining and making a case for why my job was so hard and why I couldn’t succeed with every student. This isn’t uncommon. As Kaneka Turner pointed out during ShadowCon16 at NCTM this year, how many of us as high school teachers at math education conferences ignore the elementary school teachers sitting nearby?

We are part of the problem! We need to be inviting elementary school and middle school teachers to our world. We need to be reaching out to all of them, and asking them to join us in showing all students that every single one of them is a mathematician.

On a related note, one of my Trig/PreCalculus students said a few weeks ago that she and her classmates weren’t mathematicians, that I was the only mathematician in the room. It was in the context of a debate, and I think she felt my glare and knew what she had said, but I didn’t address it until earlier this week.

“In English class, when you write, what are you?”

“A writer.”

“In art class, when you make art, what are you?”

“An artist.”

“In music class, when you make music, what are you?”

“A musician.”

“Then in math class, when you do math, what are you?”

“Math students.”

And then it sank in for them, and for me. There’s more that I need to be doing, because despite all the success I think I have sometimes, at the end of the day, my most advanced math students don’t see themselves as mathematicians. I need to send them better invitations.



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