Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics

 “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. ;)


  1. Your story has brought tears to my eyes. I love your passion and motivation, and can relate to your college math experience. Your blog, your tweets - they have helped me so much with my own butterflies and wanting-to-cry eyes. Thank you.

  2. "Whatever it takes for all of us to leave the train station together."

    Your words really resonate with me on a couple of levels. There are a lot of teachers/people who elevate the idea of having to know everything about [insert subject] in order to teach that subject. Spoiler alert: this is false. Knowing content is incredibly important for teaching, for sure, but there are many other elements that are incredibly important and maybe even more important sometimes. If you see teaching as helping people to learn, then the role of teacher as a cheerleader is also imperative. Sounds like you make a great cheerleader for your students.

    I have learned as a math team coach, that this role is actually the most important for high level mathematics. I cannot possibly know all the math that my team will see on competitions, the answers to all the questions, or the "best" way to solve them. The more I get my students to understand that, the less they rely on me for that teacher-y role. In turn, that makes them better problem solvers, learners, and mathematicians. And, so, I just keep on being the best cheerleader and coach I can for them, and saying, "Let's solve this together."

    1. I find that high school teachers are sometimes way more attached to content than to students. I think I might be an elementary teacher trapped inside my high school pod lol One time I was feeling low about my math skills and someone tweeted me that I had 'more teacher moves than they could imagine' and that really buoyed me. We feel like everyone is focusing on our flaws when really they are all focusing on their own. We always see what we are lacking but let's also honor all the goods we have to give!

    2. We are always our most specific critics, aren't we?

  3. Love this! It's always encouraging to know we are not alone, and reading this post definitely encouraged me because I had a very similar experience as well when it came to college math classes. I felt so behind and lost and confused, while my classmates just seemed to get it. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Let's also not forget that even if they get all the math, maybe they aren't getting all the love they need. We can all find our purpose in the gifts and talents we have.

  4. I had a very similar experience to you in college-level math courses. They felt completely different from my very successful high school experience and I was embarrassed to find myself struggling so much. I went to office hours with one professor to express my confusion. He looked at me, told me to go back and read the textbook and come back with specific questions. I was humiliated and helpless and ended up dropping the class.

    While I'm not proud of the choice to quit, I am proud of what I learned. I learned about how important having a good and understanding teacher (like you!) is to being successful. Having been through this experience, I too am now so much more thoughtful about how I interact with students when they are struggling.

    I also now share this story with my students, not to scare them, but to discuss strategies for getting help. I try to push them to identify what they are struggling with and always give positive feedback for students seeking out help. Even as an adult, I also sometimes get those feelings of worry that I won't understand something, especially in graduate courses with high-level mathematics. But I try to be self-reflective and think about where I'm getting lost and work from there.

    And, I ended up taking the class and graduating with a minor in Mathematics. And a Math teacher too!

    Thank you for sharing :)

    1. I actually failed Calc 3 and it came down to the very last test of the semester. Everyone or almost everyone failed it and the teacher said "It's not my fault that you didn't learn." I took it the next semester with another teacher and got a B. I hate the two classes I had at the beginning of my course load with a specific teacher. I had him once more during my last semester for a seminar class and I was determined to finally get an A in his class. And I did. We may not know all the math but we definitely learned some lessons. :)

  5. I too have had struggles with college classes, especially math classes. My struggles mostly happened within my first year of college when I took college algebra and had no idea what to expect. I am still in college pursuing a degree in education! After reading this blog post, I have gained more confidence in teaching mathematics! Your experiences are so relatable, and your concluding thoughts have inspired me to look into minoring in mathematics. Thank you for encouraging me to become a well-rounded educator!

    1. You are giving me entirely too much credit! But I'm glad you found something encouraging.

    2. Thank you for responding! :)