A Pep Talk for Parents and Teachers Who Hate Math

Can I let you in on a little secret?

I don’t love math.

Yes, I teach math for a living.  Yes, I have two college degrees in math.  But it’s not something I’m passionate about.  It’s just something that has always come easily for me.

It’s OK if you never love math, either.  I realize that it may never come easily for you.  But please quit talking about how much you hate math.  Your children and/or students are listening, and they are absorbing your opinions.

As someone who teaches math to adults, I hear “I hate math,” “I’ve always been terrible at math,” “I just can’t do math,” and every version of those statements every term.  Tell someone you teach math, and the majority of people will give you a look that is at once filled with fear, admiration, and incredulity.  (I give English teachers that same look because I’m imagining trying to grade multiple classes’ term papers, but that’s a different subject.  Literally.)

I once had a group of students who started talking about this, and I discovered something interesting.  Many of them remembered having an elementary teacher who hated math.  They talked of teachers who would say things like, “Well, now we have to do math” in much the same tone they would use to say, “Well, now we have to bury our class hamster who didn’t make it.”  The teacher hated math (probably due to his/her own insecurities or previous teachers who hated math), and the students began to think of it as a subject to be endured, not enjoyed.

I see this frequently in homeschool circles.  I’m on e-mail lists for several different curriculum companies, and I can’t tell you how many of them advertise their math curriculum as a solution for “the subject you most hate to teach.”  Ugh.  I cringe every time I read that.

Teachers and parents, I’m begging you: please don’t turn your kids against math before they’ve even had a chance to learn it for themselves.  I’m sorry you had bad experiences in the past.  I apologize on behalf of math teachers everywhere for not being able to explain clearly and whet your appetite to know more.  But there’s no reason for that to be perpetuated.

Some suggestions for improving your attitude toward teaching math:

1.  Become more comfortable with the subject yourself.  If your negativity is really just a symptom of insecurity, there’s never been a better time to gain that knowledge.  One website that I recommend to my students almost daily is Khan Academy.  It has video presentations on almost every math topic you can imagine (and many other subjects, as well).  You may also be amazed what you can find on YouTube.  Just search “3-digit addition” or “graphing linear equations,” and you’ll be amazed what all is out there.

2.  Choose a curriculum that either does the teaching for you or tells you exactly what to say.  (I realize this is not usually possible for school teachers, so I’m mainly talking to homeschool Mamas on this one.)  I’m not the best one to recommend curricula in this particular subject because it’s an area where I don’t use a teacher’s book, but I’ve heard good things about Teaching Textbooks for 3rd grade through Pre-Calculus.  We really like Singapore Math, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending it to someone who struggles in teaching math.  If you have something that has worked well for you, please share in the comments.

3.  Where possible, focus on the practical applications of math.  Don’t study decimals without talking about money.  Slice up pizzas or double a recipe to talk about fractions.  Figure out the cost of a sale item when working on percents.  In Algebra, calculate the slope of a staircase.  Use the scale on a map to illustrate ratios and proportions.  Bonus result of this approach: kids are less fearful of word problems when they’ve already done the calculations in a natural setting.

By the way, the above suggestions can be used for other subjects, too.  Perhaps you love math but hate literature.  Or maybe you find history exciting but dread science.  Nobody loves every subject, but you may just have a child who enjoys the very thing that you detest (or who will enjoy it if given a fighting chance).  I have a daughter who loves art.  I am NOT an artist, but I found a handwriting book that incorporates drawing.  I assign her pictures to draw in history and science.  I also take advantage of her spending time with my mother and mother-in-law who are both much better at art than me.

My son wants to be an athlete who plays all of the sports “except water polo and swimming – well, except swimming.”  (He’s 8.)  My daughter wants to be a bike rider (as of this moment).  (She’s 5.)  If you ask either of them their favorite subject in school, they’ll give the same answer: math.  Why?  Because they’ve picked up on their mother’s confidence and attitude, and their Daddy (a former history major) tells them all the time how important it is.

I don’t have to become an accomplished artist, athlete, or bike rider to enable my children to pursue their interests.  And you don’t have to become a mathematician to adequately teach your children or students.  I’m mostly asking you to change your attitude.  If I encounter one of your students in a future college course, they may not love math, they may not be the very best math student, but I hope they will at least not hate math.