“Though this virtual conference is focused on humanizing mathematics, it sometimes helps to think about the opposite. De-humanizing mathematics. Please share a time when doing mathematics was a dehumanizing experience for you.”
-The Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics
Generally I did well in school in all subjects up until college. I can only remember one terrible time when I was in second grade. I wasn't understanding a concept and I remember telling the teacher that I didn't understand, almost in shock....because it didn't happen to me very often. And the teacher said "Well you better jump on the train because it's leaving the station."
I remember instantly feeling butterflies in my stomach and tears in my eyes and literally imagining a train with my whole class and teacher leaving me all alone. "But I don't know how to get on the train!"
And now I have no idea how the situation resolved or any other details.
Fast forward to high school. Again, I did well in school, I was salutatorian, did well on standardized tests, helped others with math, on the math team, etc.
And then college was a brick wall. I cried nearly every day and called my mom to say I couldn't do this. I had decided to be a math teacher because math was like a puzzle to me and I felt like math was actively learning new skills instead of just memorizing facts like the other subjects. But truly, all of my college math classes felt like they were in another language. I had no idea how this connected to anything I would ever teach in high school. How was Calculus and Modern Algebra and Discrete preparing me to teach high school math? How was it that no one else was struggling but me? How was it that I was the top of my class and struggling so bad? How would the rest of my class make it?
I went to the math lab for peer tutoring every day after class. I went to office hours all the time with my professors, usually not even knowing what to ask, but knowing I needed help. Honestly, I still don't really know how I passed most of those classes.
One of my classmates was the same age as me and was also becoming a high school math teacher. I felt like she was my equal in so many ways. I could tell she had been successful in high school and active in clubs. She was friendly and confident, things I had been in high school but somehow had completely lost in college. So how did this all come so naturally to her? She was actually a tutor in the math lab...for the same class we were taking!
I would hear people talking about future math classes we would have to take and literally imagined the words swirling around my head...how could I know so little? How could I hope to teach anyone anything about math?
I made it through, mainly because I'm not a quitter. And I only ever wanted to be a teacher so.....I had no back up plan. lol
One day I was at church talking to some friends, basically have a break down over everything. And my friend says "Ok, what do you love doing? What makes you excited? What problem do you want to fix? What comes to your mind first?"
And my response was "to help people when I see confusion." Like I wish I could speak other languages so I could help people who aren't understanding.
So he says to me..."Elissa, you want to be a teacher."
Why did I need to hear someone else say what I already knew to be true?
I honestly don't know how I made it through those classes or how any of that helped me. I really and truly don't. I still don't know any Calculus. I don't know the big picture of the things that I'm teaching. I don't know how everything connects.
When I go to TMC and we have to do math, I always hesitate. I already know that I don't know what to do. I already feel ashamed that other teachers do this for fun and I don't know how to start. I'm not afraid to ask questions but I am afraid to ask too many questions. So I wait, hoping to figure out the one question to ask that will magically unlock all the understanding for me. Or I just clench my teeth and wait for it to be over and get back to teaching strategies.
Honestly, doing any math about Algebra 2 is still dehumanizing to me. It still makes me feel like a fraud.
I am a better teacher than a mathematician. I will never get any more degrees in math or discover any theorems.
But my gifts and my experiences shaped me into a teacher who does two things: explains how to get on the train and doesn't let the train leave anyone behind.
Anytime a student mentions that I never leave anyone behind or that I try to make sure everyone understands, my second grade self smiles.
When I am teaching a new concept, I look for the butterflies and wanting-to-cry-eyes so I can explain more, better, again.
Whatever it takes for all of us to leave the train station together.
P.S. Remind me of this post the next time I complain about never getting far enough through the pacing guide. ;)