Monday, August 25, 2008

This class is boring and hard and ...

I was not one of those children who loved math. Nor did I excel at it. The only two Ds I ever received in my life were in math -- fifth grade and eighth grade. Then seven or eight years ago, I went to a homeschool conference and attended a session on math. Prior to that conference, I always said, "I'm not good at math." That day I realized I was wrong -- I was good at math, but I'd had some unfortunate experiences in math classes as a child.

The teachers of those two classes where I got Ds scared me down to my toes. In fact, my eighth grade math teacher would slap children across the face several times a week. She gave one boy a bloody lip. I sat at the back of the classroom, and I'm normally a front-seat kind of student. I didn't want her to notice I was in the class, but one day she called me up to her desk. I remember her yelling at me, "Why are you shaking?" It didn't seem like a good idea to tell her the truth -- that I was scared of her -- so I just said, "I don't know." I don't remember why she was yelling at me, but I do remember being allowed to go back to my desk.

That was in 1977, and I would like to think that today if a teacher were slapping children almost daily, she would be removed from the classroom immediately. But it doesn't take an experience that dramatic for a child to be turned off by a subject. If kids don't feel safe, how can they learn? And I don't just mean safe from physical harm, but safe from ridicule and embarrassment, as well. Although few teachers would belittle a child for doing poorly, it is not uncommon for other children to make fun of classmates who have problems, whether the problems are academic, social, or physical. That is one reason why school does not work for some children.

And it's an insult to children to say that they should get tough and deal with it. If you had a job where you worried daily that you would be fired, would you be excited about going to work every day? If your co-workers made fun of you, would you be able to concentrate on your job and do your best? Most people would be looking for another job under those circumstances.

When I looked back over my years in math classes, I realized that there was a direct correlation between the teacher and my grade most years. And I don't think it had anything to do with the teacher's teaching or mathematical ability. It had to do with the teacher's personality. I got a 79% in high school algebra. The teacher was the freshman football coach, and he spent every Friday class in the fall talking about the football game. In the spring, he was the freshman basketball coach, and he spent a lot of time talking about the basketball games. And he wasn't talking to the girls in the class -- just the boys. I was bored and felt like he didn't really care about algebra or my learning algebra.

I got a 95% in high school geometry. The teacher was not a coach. He spent every day talking about geometry. He spoke to the boys and girls equally and was a really nice guy. But since I had "bombed" algebra, I refused to take a second year of the subject. When I got to college, however, I did take two semesters of algebra and got an A each semester.

My point here is not to blame teachers for bad grades. I know I earned a C in that high school algebra class because I didn't earn enough points to get a higher grade. And I struggled to get the C. I remember it being very hard. But the struggling and the bad grades in math classes caused me to paint a picture of myself as someone who was not "good" at math. I never thought about how uncomfortable I felt in those classes when the teachers were not talking about math.

There are several reasons why math teachers are not always the best people to teach math. Most of them become math teachers because they love math. That means they were good at it as students. Some people are intuitively mathematical people. One of my children is like that -- can do all sorts of math problems in his head and give you the answer, even though he's never had any formal instruction in math. But he can't explain how he got the answer. Yes, I know, teachers have been educated about how to teach, but if math has always been easy for them, they can't empathize as much with students who struggle. Although there are some good teachers out there, children's teachers change every year in schools. What are the odds that they'll get 12 great math teachers?

A common reason I hear for parents not homeschooling is, "I'm bad at math," and "I couldn't teach my kids math." I had that same fear when I started homeschooling, but I figured that my engineer husband could take care of whatever higher math I couldn't handle, since he uses calculus on a daily basis. But I think a lot of parents would learn the same thing I did -- you are not bad at math. I recently bought a used algebra textbook from Amazon for my youngest in preparation for college. I opened it to the first chapters and realized that it didn't look that hard. Just as I am always telling my children that they can teach themselves most of what they want to learn, I know I could teach myself algebra -- if I wanted to. But motivation is a topic for another day.


Cathy said...

Boy, can I relate to this! I thought I was terrible at math until I started teaching 5th grade math and realized it could be fun. I do think that since math never came easy for me, I was good at teaching math because I could sense what kids were not going to understand about it and tried to find ways that it made more sense.

As an unschooling mom, I am always surprised at the methods my children use to learn math. I remember when my son started adding double digit numbers. He always had the right answer and if he didn't, he only wanted to know it was wrong and then would come back later with another answer. When I ask how they figure out the answer, it always amazes me because they do so much problem solving to figure it out rather than just learning a one method to the answer. After they explain their process I always think, "I am so glad I didn't try teaching them that concept. I would have totally screwed them up."

Jena said...

Hi! Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving such a great comment about Peter's post. He'll be surprised and happy, I'm sure. I see from your profile we're the same age and both live in Illinois. I'd love to email you and ask where you are, etc. I'm at

Also, excellent post here. I can't believe you had such a horrible experience in school. I am continually thankful for the freedom to homeschool!