Dear Teacher: Please stop telling my daughter that Math is difficult
I have a confession to make. I lied to my daughters teacher and said that her favorite subject is Math but it is not… or rather, it wasn’t.
You see, I believe there is an epidemic of negative views that ensure certain people never have a chance to excel in subjects they aren’t supposed to excel in. So, I did a little experiment of my own, using a bit of positive messaging and good intent to see if I can influence both my daughters’ perception of and confidence in math.
My daughters’ 1st grade teacher asked us to fill out a survey for the first day of school. On that survey were two interesting questions (amongst others) “What is your child’s favorite subject?” and “What subject does your child excel in?“. My natural response was to simply write “Math” and be done with it. She did great in Math last year and loved adding and subtracting on her own. But then the guilt set in. Her favorite subject is likely Art. She has an artistic mind and dreams in color. She is creative and awesome and I’m proud of her. I can’t force MY favorite subject on her! Or could I?
Instead of jumping to conclusions, I asked her by listing out the possible subjects. I said Spelling, Reading, Math… and she stopped me right there – “Oh no Mommy, I’m not good in Math!”
WHAT?! I was quite shocked by this statement. For one, I want her to LOVE Math (just like me of course). Secondly, she excelled in the subject in pre-school and kindergarten – it’s always come easy to her so I didn’t even know we had a problem. So, why on earth would my awesome daughter think that Math was difficult for her? I was floored.
After a brief conversation on the subject (I attempted not to make a big deal about it while I was freaking out inside), I came to the conclusion that someone told her Math was hard and she didn’t want to be involved in something so difficult. She wasn’t confident in it and it made her nervous. But her grades and work didn’t reflect this sentiment at all!
So, stubborn me promptly told her that she was so good in Math that she was ahead of the class (not sure if it was true but I said it) and then I told her that her favorite subjects were Math and Art and wrote them down on the paper. She of course agreed because she believes everything I say. If my husband knew I had done this, he would have probably said I was forcing her into “my way” and influencing her decisions too much. “Don’t tell her what she likes” he would say “you don’t like when people do that to you“. But I wasn’t having it and I was not at all ashamed of my actions either. No daughter of mine was going to have trouble in MATH!!!
Fast forward a few weeks into the school year, Olivia and I were chatting about school and I asked her what was her best subject. She replied “my best subject is Math“. I asked her why that was and she said “I’m really good at it“. And she was… her test results were flawless and she did her homework with ease; even teaching me a thing or two. So my experiment worked! But my reaction was a cross between guilt and absolute joy. My attempt at instilling confidence and a love for math has actually influenced her so much that she actually believed it. I can’t tell at this point if she actually likes it or if it was what I said that made her think she “has to” like it. But did it matter? She thinks Math is her best subject. Isn’t’ that what I wanted? Sigh… the doubts of parenting.
A few weeks later we’re completing math homework – this new “common core standard” work called “Doubles Equations” where they want you to use a doubles equation (1+1 or 8+8, etc.) to find the sum of two numbers. For example to solve 8+7, you would add 7+7+1. Since you memorize your 7+7 doubles equation, this is supposed to be easier than just counting up from 8 or memorizing the addition sentence itself. It’s an interesting concept. I don’t disagree with it but it was initially difficult for me to understand since this is not exactly how I add in my head.
While trying to figure it out, Olivia floored me again with “Math is hard Mommy, my teacher said so“. Ugh, I thought we were over this! I responded to her. “Math is not hard, it’s your best subject. You tell your teacher that you’re really good at it.” (Am I in denial, I wondered.) She responded to me that other kids in the class don’t understand the Math and that their parents write letters saying that it is difficult and doesn’t make sense. I told her that some people don’t read the directions properly and proceeded to teach her how to do the doubles equations. (Yeah, I was a bit high-almighty but I needed to get over that hump with her!) She got it after a few tries and now has no issue with the doubles equations that she can do them with her eyes closed.
The next day the teacher sends a note home with all the children. It reads something along the lines of “The new math is difficult, we’re teaching your children higher level concepts and critical thinking. Stick with it and they will learn.” Okay Teacher, I get you. I like that you said “we’re teaching your children higher level concepts” but really, why oh why is it necessary to TELL the children and the parents that the subject is DIFFICULT?!
I don’t walk into a meeting with my development team and tell them “I have a difficult job for you but you have to do it and you’ll like it because I said so“. I say “Guys, I have an exciting new idea that I think you’re going to like.” It’s a bit of positive thinking, encouragement and giving them verbal confidence that this is fun and you will love it!
Confidence in young girls is one of the biggest drivers and detractors to success; in both academics and social situations. It is often spoken about that young girls lack confidence in their looks, their body image is off, etc. etc.; Alternatively, I think it’s immensely important to cultivate confidence in the whole child (a bit Montessori of me). It’s not good enough to just tell your daughter she is beautiful to give her confidence. Tell her she is smart, that she is great at what she does and pay extra attention to the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).
I’m quite passionate about making sure my children have confidence in all that they do. I recently read an article by Annie Murphy Paul where the author quoted a study in 2010 that demonstrates how teachers’ unease with math can influence the students in their classrooms. She wrote:
“The more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely the girls in their classes were to endorse negative stereotypes about females’ math ability.”
This study focused on teenage girls. My 6-year-old daughter is feeling this today, in her 1st grade classroom. We need to put a stop to it now. So, Dear Teacher: Please stop telling my daughter that Math is difficult. Tell her she’s good in Math, that she is better than the rest and that she will do even better if she practices her work.
I’m not ashamed of my little white lie, because what I intended to happen, happened. My 6-year-old daughter is grasping higher level concepts in Math. She’s so excited to move onto the next chapter that she finishes her full weeks worth of Math homework on Monday nights. She even teaches her Dad and I the new methods – as she actually is paying more attention to the teachers’ lessons each day. She is now awesome in Math because of her confidence in the subject.
But winning this battle does not win the war. Seemingly unaware detractors and naysayers are reversing this confidence daily. Each day I must reiterate her love for Math as well as other subjects. Each day I have to make sure her confidence isn’t wavering. It is my job as a mother to make sure the confidence we built together stays within her until she is able to reassure herself.
- This is Why I Don’t Believe Anyone Who Says ‘I’m Not a Math Person’ (patheos.com)
- Helping Students with Math Anxiety (howtolearn.com)
- Why Kids Take On Adults’ Math Anxiety (blogs.kqed.org)
- Confidence Helps Boost Teenage Girls’ Math Skills (abcnews.com)