I have a confession to make. I teach high school math and I have math anxiety. I HATE doing math in front of other people.

I think this stems from a few places.

1) I am horrible at mental math. I didn’t learn any kind of logical reasoning to go with mental calculations until I was in my early 20s. The day someone told me figuring out 15% tax was easy because you just had to figure out 10%, then halve it and then add the two together BLEW MY MIND. I think I was 23. At 23 I had already earned a university degree and was still trying to compute 15% mentally with no shortcut. It was around this same time when I started attending professional development that highlighted strategies young students could use to add/subtract numbers, and again, I was amazed. Simple things, like rounding up and then subtracting that number later (98 +47 = 100+47-2) had never even occurred to me. To this day my reflex is to try and line up numbers in my head and do all that really complicated carrying business. While I’m trying to do this, people inevitably look at me and say “You’re the math teacher.” Yes, yes I am. And I own a calculator.

2) I excel at school math. You know, the kind that involves a 5 step process. The kind that involves no creativity at all, that involves memory recall of what steps apply to a problem that looks similar. I excel enough that I can likely give you 2 or 3 options for how to solve any given problem and really explain to you why it works. I even really enjoy “complicated” school math, because arriving at that final answer after the tedious process appeals to me. (Disclaimer, I also really like things like filing paperwork and filling out excel spreadsheets. Repetition is soothing, victory is assured.)

3) I am a slow math thinker. This might be related to #1. When I do propose a hypothesis, it takes me quite awhile to feel it out to its logical (or illogical) end. There is nothing wrong with this, but often working in a group setting other members have already taken off. I need silent processing time – partially to make sure I actually understand what’s going on, partially because I like to make sure I don’t sound ridiculous when I do voice an idea.

The good news? I’m getting over it. It’s taken longer than expected given how okay I am with saying ridiculously wrong things in all other aspects of my life (of course, totally convinced that I am right as I say them), but it is better. It is something I do have to actively manage however. Luckily for me, managing my anxiety is much like a 5 step process, and I’m quite proficient at that!

Precisely for this reason, I find great value in having semi-regular number talks. Give students a problem that they should be able to solve mentally. After several minutes, when you think/know a number of students have the right answer, ask them to share their strategies. Some might try algorithms, some might use compensation strategies to make 10s or 100s, and others might distribute/factor in ways that aren’t obvious at first. This can really encourage students (and the teacher!) to think about the relationships between numbers and operations more deeply.

Good for you, recognizing and honoring your own mathematical self. I can relate to what you are saying because I too teach math and have terrible math anxiety. I too am slow and cautious in my mathematical thinking. It’s just who I am.

I wouldn’t say I have overcome it so much as I have learned how to work with it, how to relax and let go rather than trying to control it. I have learned to leave it alone when it starts freaking out in the back. I am still learning to invite it to sit with me and have some tea and tell me what’s bothering it, rather than trying to drug it, gag it, and lace it into a straitjacket before shoving it into the locked trunk.

The irony is that honoring and allowing space for my traumatized inner math student was what opened the floodgates to success as a mathematical learner. It allowed me to be authentic in my mathematical thinking. And as a result, I’ve become quite successful in doing all kinds of math.

I find that understanding and “owning” my own experience has also helped me in working with traumatized math students. I have a lot of compassion for them, as well as understanding. So much of our work is about encouraging discouraged math learners to have courage anyway and to keep trying. One can never predict where or when understanding will bloom out of the compost heap of confusion.

Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

Can I simply say what a relief to uncover a person

that actually knows what they are discussing on the web.

You definitely know how to bring a problem to light and make it important.

More people really need to look at this and understand this side of your

story. I was surprised that you aren’t more popular because you most certainly possess the gift.