Prompt: How do you express your identity as a doer of mathematics to, and share your “why” for doing mathematics with, kids?
I am straight with my students from the moment they walk in my door: I decided to teach math because I grew up being told math wasn’t for me. Year after year I was excluded from the highest levels of math and fought to earn myself a spot, sometimes winning a place, and sometimes losing out. I teach math because I have made every single mistake it’s possible to make and I know that making mistakes can make you feel like you don’t belong.
It started in first grade when two boys who I consistently outperformed were placed in second grade math, but I remained in first, getting sent to the back of the room for finishing my work too fast and bothering people who weren’t done yet. I would like to point out that boys who bother people because they are bored are “being boys” and “need a challenge.” Girls who do so are non-compliant. It continued in seventh grade when I was enrolled in a lower math class despite a strong placement score because my elementary school was notorious for lackluster math preparation.
In a job interview a few years ago I was asked how I planned to teach math when my undergraduate degree is in history. I hadn’t heard that question or addressed that particular deficiency of mine in a while. “I’ve been teaching math for a decade,” I replied. “I plan to continue that.” But, I told my interviewer, I majored in history because the message I got loud and clear in adolescence was that math was not for me. I don’t plan to let that happen to another student on my watch.
I got the job.
Math was not for freshman girls who worked too slow and had too many questions, who needed to study for hours and go to the tutoring center. Math was not for queer brown girls who were homesick, navigating identity, or too distracted by music classes. Math was not for someone with her high school math teacher’s voice echoing in her head:
“How does it feel to be friends with all the smart kids, Leila?”
“I gave the most challenging problem to the two top students in their sections, and then to Leila, so her dad can help her with it.”
“Sorry, Leila, you aren’t qualified for that class. You have an 89.4% this quarter. You needed an 89.5%. Yes, I know your dad has been in the hospital having heart surgery.”
“Oh, no, Leila didn’t come up with this proof herself.” But that proof was no mistake; I spent weeks on it.
Math was for the quick, deft, and brilliant: talented people who didn’t need to study, didn’t need to work with others, and certainly didn’t get a 58% (B+) on the first college midterm after studying for a week. I’m 35 now. I have a master’s in Math Education, and my thirteen years in the classroom have been spent in public schools in Brownsville Brooklyn, South Los Angeles and Koreatown as well as a private all-girls school where I currently work.
In those thirteen years I have never encountered a student I would describe as bad at math.
Math has been an equalizer. My students were good at math even as they were enrolled in Read 180 class for being six grade levels behind in reading. Math is something my students were good at even if they couldn’t speak a word of English. My students who are risk-averse after years of parental pressure are good at math too! Even my students whose test scores shelved them in my intervention math class excelled at it, because math is something they could be good at with a little love, a little patience and hard work together. We use math to make art, find connections and reveal social truths and inequalities. My goal is for math to be a source of pride for all of us.
My current students are girls like I was, selected by merit at a top all-girls school. I teach the regular level classes, the classes full of girls who have been told, or who have told themselves, that math is not for them. I look them in the eye on Day One and tell them “I was told this is not for me. I didn’t get the fancy degree with ‘Mathematics’ on it because I believed the mistakes I made prevented from me being successful. I’m here to tell you that this is for you. And me. And your sisters and your moms and your grandmas and your aunties and absolutely everyone else.” At Back to School Night I look their moms in the eye and say that same thing.
We spend the first week working on puzzles together and brainstorming ways to stay positive when the going gets rough in math class, because, inevitably the going will get rough. “This is going to be hard sometimes. But you can do hard things!” I tell them. We make place mats out of our positive mindset messages and tape them to the desks. I tell them to breathe during assessments. “These are only rough drafts,” I say. “There are always retakes. I don’t care when you come to understand this content, I care that you understand it well, and in your own time. I care that you work hard.” They do work hard.
We light scented candles, make gorgeously color-coded study sheets and play Kahoot, picking our code names from our favorite books and movies. Sometimes I throw them for a loop and play Kahoot with them. I don’t win. They’re always surprised by that, and I laugh and remind them that I never have been fast at math. This last year I had a baby. When I came back from leave I was so sleep-deprived that I could barely string a sentence together. “Keep an eye out!” I implored them. “If you see me make a mistake don’t stay quiet. Save me from my addled brain and help me out here!”
If I could go back in time, I wish I could take my own math class. I wish I had a teacher telling me it’s gift to take your time, to make mistakes and make revisions, and to want to consult with your partners a lot. I wish I had a daughter I could raise with the solid confidence I never had, but I have two sons instead.
My older son is about to enter elementary school. He’s four and a half and just striking out on his own, trying things like putting his shoes on by himself and sounding out words. He makes a lot of mistakes, and he glances at me grumpily, uncertainly and says “Mistakes are cool, right Mimi? Because mistakes are how you learn.” I can hear in his voice that he doesn’t like making mistakes any more than any of us do, but I affirm for him that yes, mistakes are cool.
Mistakes are how you learn.