October 23, 2023 9:41 am

The Power of a Positive Math Identity by Deborah B. Peart

Ever wondered why it’s acceptable to say ‘I’m NOT a math person’ but rare to hear ‘I’m not a reading person’? Dive into a thought-provoking exploration of the detrimental effects of math anxiety, and why it’s time to embrace that we are all, indeed, ‘Mathers’.

“I am not a reading person,” is not something we typically hear people say, yet it is quite common to hear,

“I am NOT a math person!”

A few months ago, I traveled to Baltimore for work, but my travel shoes were just not comfortable. I decided to run into Marshall’s and pick up a pair of sneakers before heading to the airport. I tried on a few and decided on a comfy pair of black sneakers, and then headed over to grab some socks. While I really only needed one pair, they had a 10 pack for $7 and a 6 pack for $9. They were similar styles and brands, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to take home some extras. In my mind, it was a no brainer, but sadly it became evident this was not the case for the young sales associate.

Sales Associate: “Do you need some help?”

Deborah: “Not really, just comparing these sock bundles. The 10 pack is $7 and the 6 pack is $9,”  I responded with a chuckle.

Sales Associate: “That is just too much math! Sorry, I cannot help you. I am NOT a math person.”

This exchange was disheartening not just because the only math involved was comparing numbers within 10, but also because I can’t imagine someone would ever say, “Ugh, that’s too many words. I just can’t help you. I am not a reading person.” So, why is it okay to declare, “I am NOT a math person?”

In many spaces, adults refuse to engage with mathematics. They have opted out based on the belief that only certain careers need mathematics and only certain individuals are wired to “do” mathematics. We must break the cycle of math anxious adults, teaching children to be intimidated by mathematics, who then grow up to be math anxious adults. When students don’t have a positive math identity they don’t see themselves as math people. So, what happens when teachers don’t believe they are math people?

Research by Hadley, K. M., & Dorward, J. (2011) found that there is a correlation between teachers’ math anxiety and student math achievement. When teachers have unhealthy relationships with mathematics, it can interfere with their ability to connect to the subject and portray mathematics in a positive light. Teachers are the anchors in the classroom, so they need to be grounded and confident in order to facilitate optimal learning. If math anxiety is not addressed, we will continue to see simple math concepts causing freeze, fight, or flight responses in students, parents, and yes teachers.

Some people believe they can teach mathematics without addressing their own anxiety, but it is necessary to heal and actively work to nurture your own positive math identity development. Teachers with negative math identities can negatively impact the development of their students’ identities because they unknowingly project anxieties and mindsets onto their students. Even teachers with positive math identities and a strong connection to mathematics can unintentionally do harm to students’ fragile math identities. Whether it’s an offhand comment, inadequate wait time, or a perplexed look when a student shares a creative strategy, we all could use proven methods for developing cognitive empathy and alleviating math anxiety.

The results from the 2023 NAEP Mathematics Assessment revealed that we have experienced the greatest decline in NAEP Mathematics Assessment scores at grades 4 and 8 since 1990 when they began. One proposed solution to improve mathematics achievement is to support teachers with relevant professional learning. Teachers deserve high quality professional development focused on math content and effective instructional practices. For years, there has been an imbalance between literacy and mathematics training and support. It’s time to invest time and resources in mathematics, so we can make an impact on student math achievement. In order to nurture positive math identities with students, there must be a shift in mindsets, beliefs, and practices. Let’s work together to build a community of mathers!

Math is for Life.

What if instead of Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, we redefined the core academic skills as Reading, Writing, and Mathing? Imagine classrooms where all students are encouraged to be mathers. What is a mather? A mather is a person who uses mathematics to make sense of the world. With so many people opting out of mathematics because of the myth that some are born with “math brains” and others are not, it is important to establish a norm that math is for everyone. If we start by changing our language, students can see that even if they don’t choose to be mathematicians they can still keep mathing.

We must make it a practice to highlight all the ways we use math everyday and help students experience success with math tasks. Math talk should also take place outside of the designated math block, which demonstrates that math is everywhere. Mathematizing stories and the world around them allows students to experience math in ways that are long lasting. Students must engage with relevant contexts and experience mathematics in ways that are inviting, without time pressures and ideals of perfection. Even toddlers would choose the hand that has three snacks over the hand that has one, so it’s safe to say that we were all born with mathematical minds.

Math is a Team Sport!

In order to build a community where math is celebrated and enjoyed, we must encourage collaboration. Teachers benefit from planning together, solving problems together, and exploring new ways of mathing together. As we step outside of our comfort zones, we can model for students how to take deep breaths before new challenges, how to view mistakes as growth opportunities, and how to ask for help when we really need it. We can establish a class culture where students view one another as experts, choose appropriate tools to support their understanding, and boldly justify their reasoning and critique the reasoning of others.

We are Born to be Mathers!

Teachers’ math identity development has a direct impact on students’ identities and math achievement. As the adults in their lives, we owe it to our students to be reflective so we can address our own math anxiety and show compassion for those around us experiencing it. Building a math culture and community focused on preparing all students for college, career, and beyond is grounded in the belief that all students can learn mathematics and need math for life. Look in the mirror and ask yourself how you can lead the way with reframing mathematics to help others believe math is for everyone. It is time to celebrate that we are all Mathers!

About the Author-Deborah Peart

Deborah Peart is the founder and CEO of My Mathematical Mind. With over 30 years in the field of education, Deborah speaks on a variety of topics related to math identity, elementary math content and instruction, and literacy connections to mathematics. As a master facilitator and content developer, she supports teachers, coaches, and instructional leaders across the nation. Deborah has dedicated her career and doctoral studies to supporting educators with innovative teaching strategies that allow students to see themselves as assets to the learning community and curious problem-solvers. Deborah believes that all children deserve high quality instruction and the opportunity to become competent readers, writers, and mathers.

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