About 10 years ago, I fell in love with my arch nemesis.
I fell in love with math.
Nemesis: something that a person cannot conquer, achieve, etc., an opponent or rival whom a person cannot best or overcome.
The Primary Years: The Friend with Some Annoying Habits
In grade 1, my only math memory is being mildly jealous of the kids who could quickly and easily skip count by two. The teacher asked students what some of their strategies were for being able to skip count by twos. One of the strategies that sounded good to me was to say every other number in your head, but that ended up being a terrible strategy because I didn’t have time to say a number in my head when we were doing choral skip counting as a class. I was behind by the time we got to 6, so I reverted back to just moving my mouth and hoping my teacher didn’t notice I wasn’t saying anything.
In grade 3, we started learning multiplication. I had been warned by my older sister and my parents I would have to be quick with my multiplication tables. I wasn’t quick even with things I did know, so I had resigned myself to the fact that this was going to be unpleasant.
We didn’t do timed tests that I recall, but I remember being stressed and having feelings of mild dread about being called on in class. Times tables were tough, and some of them, like the 6, 7, and 8 times tables were really hard. At least with 3’s you could skip count reasonably quickly by uttering 2 numbers under breath before saying every third number louder in your head until you got to the answer you wanted… unless of course you got so distracted with the skip counting that you forgot to stop in which case you had to start all over. That was the worst.
I was very relieved part way through the unit when the teacher let us keep a multiplication chart taped to the corner of our desks.
This was apparently something new. I recall having the sense that the teacher had a logical reason or two for doing it, but also that her argument for doing so would fall apart under too much scrutiny. It was probably bending the rules a little bit. I knew better than to tell my Dad about it. He would probably think it was a bad idea, and if enough people who thought it was a bad idea found out we might have them taken away.
I remember the teacher telling us that they were there to help us learn, but I wondered if that was true or if she had really just given up. Maybe trying to teach us multiplication was just as frustrating of an experience for her as it was for us. I didn’t really care though; I was very glad they were there.
The Middle School Years: The Bully that’s Not So Bad If You Stay Under the Radar
In Grade 4, I remember my brain hurting a little doing 3 digit multiplication, and long division. It wasn’t difficult, I knew the steps, but it was a lot of skip counting by a lot of unpleasant numbers. Cumbersome, if not tedious. It took a long time to do questions and homework, probably because I daydreamed about more interesting things for most of the time.
It was also in grade 4 that we were encouraged to try some of the “brain teasers” in our math books if we finished early. They were impossible. After the occasional enthusiastic start I knew better than to even attempt them.
I continued to do well for the remainder of my elementary schooling by following procedures to solve math problems. If I did get stuck i would ask for help from my Mom, but she would often refer us kids to Dad… But asking my Dad usually ended in tears. I was getting A’s for the most part, and while there may have been the odd test that came home with a low score that my parents weren’t thrilled about, my marks were no reason for any major concern.
My High School Years: The Bully that’s Discovered You Exist
Once I reached high school my experiences with math deteriorated with every passing year. I got a C in grade 9 math and my parents made me repeat it in summer school. The “solid” foundation I got in summer school didn’t pay off; my marks stayed in the C-range until they dropped off drastically in Grade 12 and OAC (grade 13).
Every year I struggled to find the rules and procedures that would consistently bring me to the right answer, and every year there seemed to be fewer and fewer. I wasn’t about to raise my hand and look stupid, so I rarely, if ever, participated, and never asked questions. Once, when called upon in trigonometry my teacher, unimpressed with “I don’t know” as an answer to his question, told me I didn’t belong in his class. I kept trudging along trying to crack the code on my own. When random exceptions to a rule came up I tried to memorize when the exception applied.
Math was something that I was just going to have to endure. Like my trig teacher said, I didn’t really belong. I was there because it was a hoop I had to jump through, meant to weed out most of the applicants applying to programs under the ‘Bachelor of Arts’ umbrella . A necessary evil.
I tried to figure out the procedure, the exceptions, and the exceptions to the exceptions, and it all got to be too much. By grade 12 and OAC (grade 13) I squeaked by with a D in Trigonometry and a generous 51% in calculus.
The only way you get a 51% in a course is if you fail but the teacher passes you anyway. Mr. Khan passed me out of the goodness of his heart.
It was during the term that I was taking Calculus with Mr. Khan that the teachers went on strike. We must have been only days into the school year when the strike started. I started going to a school in another board so that if the strike went on a long time I wouldn’t lose the year since it was my last year of high school.
It took a week or two to get registered and put in classes, so my first day in the calculus class the teacher informed me that a test was scheduled for the following day and that I would be expected to write it.
How on earth I was going to write a calculus test when I had not had a day of calculus in my life was beyond me. A friend, who was good at math, tried to teach me what he could about calculus in a couple of hours that evening. It was not an easy task since I couldn’t even tell him what was going to be on the test. Telling him “calculus” was apparently too vague. I didn’t have a single homework assignment or a single note to study from.
He explained to me what he could, and having nothing to lose since I couldn’t possibly look stupid having not had any calculus instruction whatsoever, I began to be vocal about what didn’t make sense. I asked why something worked and why something else didn’t, and why things worked in one case, but not in another. Sometimes he had an answer, but often he didn’t. Sometimes he would say that something I suggested wouldn’t work because it didn’t make sense, or because that’s not how it works, but couldn’t really explain why.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wasn’t really looking for answers to my questions about why something did or didn’t work. I was really looking to make the point that math was random and didn’t make sense. This is why math was horrible.
And ridiculous really.
He sympathized, but ultimately I had to accept a lot of random things without any understanding just so I get through the test.
I wrote it, and I think I almost past. I wasn’t embarrassed about this mark. I had 3 hours to study for a test that took the teacher three weeks to cover. In hindsight, I wish I had kept it. Today, I would have it framed. It said everything I thought about math but didn’t have the words or courage to say. I showed my parents, knowing they couldn’t possibly be mad. I found it amusing that I could almost pass a test with zero understanding, not realizing that, in fact, I had been doing that for years.
My University Years: Surviving the Hurricane
You know it’s coming. You can’t escape it. So you bunker down and hope you come out the other side.
That’s how I got through my university calculus. I failed it the first time I took it. The second time I got a D.
Done. I’d never have to take another math course again.
My First Years Teaching: Hanging Out with that Old, Familiar, Comfortable Friend
My first few years of teaching elementary math were spent getting re-acquainted with the math I was comfortable with. I even relished the role of showing my students that math was really not so bad. Nice in fact! Predictable. At this level you follow the process and everything works out. It made sense. Input. Output.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say it wasn’t so much getting familiar with an old friend as it was Stockholm Syndrome. You know, math is not so bad so long as you don’t poke the bear…. math is nice if you follow the rules and the rules still work. I didn’t have to tell them about what was coming down the pike.
I made sure my students were good at following the rules and procedures. I thought they should appreciate how I didn’t let math beat the life out of them with those impossible brain teasers.
Yet, students complained math was boring. I really didn’t know how to respond to this.
Initially, I was defensive. I told myself they had no idea of the beast I was saving them from. Boring? That was like complaining that putting on a seat belt is boring. Boring-ness has nothing to do with it. This “boring” math could save their life one day. If they could just get really good at knowing what to do and when, and then maybe get really good at figuring out what to do and when, they might one day crack the codes I wasn’t able to crack in their math courses later on. Or at least survive math until such time as they didn’t have to ever take it again.
When I wasn’t defensive, I was sad. I was sad because I believed that this — what I was teaching and doing with my students — was as good as math got.
My students were in grade 6 and were past the pain of learning multiplication facts and tedious long division that makes your head hurt. I let them have their multiplication charts. In middle school, there is math that looks pretty daunting, like exponents and equations that take up the width of the page, yet can still be figured out. While far from a favourite past-time, there was a sense of accomplishment when I was in middle school and figured out a question that looked scary and took a page of work to solve.
But moreover, I was sad because I had the sense that math was lovely when it wasn’t horrible. I believed, despite my experiences with math, that math was supposed to make sense. I continued teaching procedures not knowing what else to do. If that was all I could do, I would at least do it well. Still, my students struggled.
The Day Everything Change
I can tell you with certainty that the day I fell in love with math was the day I took an in-service with John Mighton, the founder of J.U.M.P. Math.
Something clicked. The way he taught the concepts in math made all the codes I had learned in elementary school make sense. The way I remember it was he showed us a number of different rules and procedures you typically learn in elementary school and explained why they worked. We were shown how to uncover these to our students. He covered a fractions unit, but I took what I learned and was unlocking things across all topics in mathematics.
His approach was the most genius thing I had ever heard. I left, not only understanding math, but also feeling pretty sure I could help my students understand it too. I left feeling like I was floating.
Now, I hadn’t found the holy grail. I knew that there was still a lot missing from my teaching of mathematics, but a large piece the puzzle had been found that was the key to a lot of other pieces. I wasn’t the best at teaching math after that, but boy, did I love teaching it. Middle school math was the beautiful thing I knew it could be and I did my best to share that with my students.
I spent the next year to two teaching what I understood, and if I didn’t understand something I would tell my students so. I assured them that sense could indeed be made of it, even if it wasn’t by me. I told them that if they ever figure it out to please come back and tell me. With every passing year I learned a little bit more about math, which allowed me to teach it a little bit better. I was feeling my way through the dark, but progress was being made.
I quickly realized though that loving math, or even loving just the teaching of it, did not leave me with much company. People thought I was weird. Or they thought I was a math person. Yeah, that’s a funny one.
Eventually, I was loving teaching and learning about math so much that teaching one period of math a day was not enough. I found other ways to get my “fix”. I took teacher Continuing Education (CE) course in mathematics, and tutored high school math (yes, high school). I even took university calculus over again as a mature student in case I ever wanted to upgrade my 3-year degree to a 4-year. I joined the NCTM which I had heard about from taking the CE course, and I was a member for a couple of years before I finally took notice of the endless number of reminders that I was inundated with to register for their annual conference.
I usually just deleted them without reading, but one February I guess I had seen one too many and thought I had better open one to feel better about discarding it. I don’t know what it said, but it must have been good because I was off to the NCTM Annual Conference that April. I went again the following year.
To back up for a moment, not one of these things I did without agonizing over the decision to do it. My husband can attest to that. I entered each decision knowing that it was really a disaster waiting to happen. The tutoring, the CE course, retaking university calculus, going to the NCTM conference, all of it. Every step was like jumping off a cliff in the dark.
Things worked out though. That university math course I re-took? I got an A+. I took the second half of the course and, admittedly I understood a lot less, but I still got an A-. It was madness.
It wasn’t pretty though. I spent hours studying. I was not studying to get that A I ended up getting, but just to make any sense of the material whatsoever. And that tutoring? I am not exaggerating when I say that anywhere between 4 and up to 12 hours of work went into just one hour of tutoring. So I find it funny when anyone calls me a “math person”.
Truly, I am not.
I tell people this, and explain that after hours of asking the right questions and committing to not doing anything without understanding why, I can usually figure it out.
They still call me a math person. I don’t think they understand how hard it is, the time it takes me, to understand math.
But I love the beauty found in understanding mathematics. And that, if anything, is what makes me a “math person”. Everyone has the potential to be a math person or become one at anytime. Anyone can love math.
So I guess that’s #MyMathStory: I am a teacher with no special talent, but who has a passion, an appreciation, and a respect for mathematics. I want to learn everything I can.
Thanks for reading this long post. I learned a lot just from writing it. I’d love to hear if anything resonated.