We Don't Know Everything

Reading Dan's post, What Should Math Teachers Do When They Don't Know the Math?, really resounded with me and the timing was ironic.

We were working on constructions in Geometry and we were working through notes from the curriculum. Admittedly, I had not looked made an answer key as I had performed the constructions in past years, albeit not according to these directions.

There was one step I just could not figure out. I read, reread it, positioned my compass, re-positioned my compass. I stopped and stared at it for an awkward amount of silence.

And then I turned around to tell the kids, "We're going to skip this one and come back to it tomorrow."

S: "So you don't know how to do it?"

Me: "No, I'll have to figure it out and then tell you tomorrow."

S#2: "But you're the one who is supposed to be teaching us."

Me: "Teachers are humans too. We don't know everything. Would you rather me lie to you and tell you the wrong way to do it?"

S#3: "Yes. Then we would feel better about knowing how to do it."

Me: *mind blown"

The next day at the beginning of class another student was quick to ask, "Did you figure out that problem from yesterday?"

Me: "Yes I did! Let's start on that one now since some of you were hating on me for not knowing how to do something.

S: We weren't hating....

Me: "How would you feel if I treated you that way when you don't know something?"


And we went on with class and it wasn't brought up again.

So...what do we do when it becomes clear, in front of a class, that we don't understand math like we thought.

Admit it. Show room for growth, Use growth mindset on your own set of teaching skills. Explain your old thinking and how that changed or hit an obstacle. Explain your new thinking.

And the ability to do this comes from the confidence and purpose that you feel inside. It comes from a place of being prepared and experienced. It's embarrassing for like 10 seconds and then my brain switches to "Well, I guess I'm going to learn something new today. Glad I won't have to make this mistake again."

That's worth sharing.

Students aren't used to that at first but the older they get and especially as they advance through higher math with me, I am very open about my math abilities and struggles. This year more than ever I've had students ask me why I decided to teach math and what my favorite subject was in school. I'm open about all of that. I did very well in high school and hit a wall in college. I passed most of my college courses with a C. I don't understand calculus at all. I don't even know how I passed any of those classes. I struggle with trig and some of the more advanced topics in Algebra 2. I used to call my mom every day in college, crying, telling her I didn't think I could do this.

How can I teach math when I don't understand it myself?

And then somehow I wound up in the classroom, magically able to do most of the things I have to teach with ease, and not really knowing how it happened.

But in case I ever forget, there is always a moment like I mentioned to humble me and remind what it is like to struggle, feel unsure, and be embarrassed.

I'm really trying to communicate to my students how important it is to continually better yourself. Not try to just get through things and get things over worth. Not just distract yourself and waste time with social media and video games and YouTube. But to really think about, on purpose, areas of weakness or how to make things better.

I hope it's working.

I hope they see mistakes going hand in hand with success.

I hope they see a real person can be good at their job and make mistakes.

I hope they see that making mistakes doesn't have to ruin your confidence or your day and that you grow because of and in spite of, making mistakes.

I hope it becomes normal and comfortable for them to mess up and see me mess up and learn and go on with our lives.

I just read this quote yesterday but already forgot from where, "Successful people feel comfortable being wrong."

I hope when they see me, they see both.

That's what I'm here for.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Elissa. I read your post this morning and it encouraged me to write about my experience taking a risk in front of my colleagues. I wrote about it here: https://mathontheedge.wordpress.com/
    I am a math coach and I hope I can cultivate a culture where it is normal and comfortable for teachers to mess up and see me mess up and we all learn together - with and from each other and the students. Thanks so much for sharing your reflections.

    1. Thanks Sarah, I really enjoyed your post and reflections. :)

  2. Thanks for writing this up, Elissa. I got clobbered by some college math also, which was humbling, but also gave me more empathy for struggling students than if I had sailed through college like I sailed through high school.

    1. I am right there on the struggle bus with the kids. We are solving trig identities together (which I've never learned or taught) and I'm literally sitting at the desk with them and working it out too. I hope we can all do better at teaching kids to be wrong!

  3. Hi Elissa,

    I have a lot of respect for you and the skills you are teaching your students through this experience in your classroom. I am a pre-service teacher hoping to have my own math classroom relatively soon, and I can relate very much to that feeling of not understanding the math 100% of the time. I too excelled in high school math, and came to college and was extremely challenged. I often wondered if this was the right career choice for me, if I was good enough to be a teacher – but then I realized that this is exactly why I do it. It pushes me to work harder, it has taught me a lot about what learning truly is- and a huge part of that is making mistakes. It takes a lot to be able to admit you don’t know something, especially as the authority figure in the room. And while your students may not understand that now or respect it as much as they should, they will. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement and good luck in your future career. I hope you plan to blog and be part of the #MTBoS Twitter community!

  4. Hi Elissa,
    I enjoyed reading your insight on mistakes in the classroom! I am a pre-service teacher about to go into my student teaching, and I have frequently found myself worrying that I don’t understand the math that I should. I also believe it's really important to encourage students that making mistakes is a good thing. It helps reflect on your thinking and grow, as a learner as you mentioned in your post. Though I have this positive outlook toward mistakes, I still find myself getting embarrassed and clamming up when I make them. Your post actually encouraged me to become more comfortable with this in myself. It’s good to have a reminder that we have and continue to struggle just like our students because then we can support them more. I agree that we’re setting an example for our students in how we react to our own mistakes, and promoting a growth mindset is crucial for persisting in math. Thanks for sharing your experience, it’s definitely reassuring and has made me hopeful for the future!