This may surprise some people that are online friends and acquaintances but I am super socially awkward. That awkwardness paired with my anxiety means I spend countless hours worrying that I said, did, or thought the wrong thing and will forever be an outcast as a result.
Don’t worry this blog post isn’t about unraveling all of those issues but it is key to understanding the many ways in which the math classroom served as a gatekeeper for me in social situations and how in many ways math only contributed to my issues as a preteen rather than helped them.
You’ll also need a basic understanding of how I grew up. I was raised on a family dairy farm which for those of you not aware is a 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week job. We lived 25 minutes from the town where I went to school which was a long way when your parents had a lot of chores and work to do and although I am now so thankful for my upbringing and the opportunities I had as a result – as a 12 and 13-year-old girl I wanted to be like the other kids and not a farm kid.
The other girls in my class had families that vacationed together (we couldn’t take family vacations because someone had to be at the farm to milk), frequently hung out together after school and on the weekends (I didn’t want to ask my parents to drive me back and forth to town), and were involved in lots of activities (again the distance and time issue).
My one chance to try and hang out and be normal with the other kids was at school each day but once the all-important middle school grades hit there was another hurdle standing in my way – math class. 7th Grade was when our school began sorting us very clearly into the haves and the have nots of math and lucky me straddling the gate between the two. I remember being determined to make it into Advanced Pre-Algebra as a 7th grader. If I didn’t it would be just one more way that I was different than the “cool kids”.
By some luck, they let me in but it meant that I had to go to a 2 week Pre-Algebra camp that summer – yes that’s a thing. I remember feeling really bad having to ask my parents to drive me back and forth to school every day for those 2 weeks (there was no bus) but I really wanted to do whatever it took to be normal and get in the class. It was clear early on that I was struggling but I was determined to make it.
I made it through Pre-Algebra that year with a C and against the teacher’s recommendation went on to Algebra I in 8th grade where the wheels fell off and I wasn’t allowed to move on to Geometry in high school. I would have to retake Algebra I. Dream over. My only chance at being in the “cool kid group” over because of math class.
I was pretty much done with math after that. I did well enough because my parents expected good grades. I remember being bored a lot because I knew how to do the math but simply looked at it in a different and that wasn’t ok in the 1990s. I also know I completely shut down in regards to trying to understand what was happening which really came back to hurt me once I started Pre-Calculus and had no idea what was going on.
If you could have polled my teachers I would have been voted “least likely to be a math teacher” instead I was voted “most likely to be a talk show host” (there’s something that makes you feel intelligent!).
I went to college became an agriculture teacher and lived happily ever after until I realized that I was explaining math to kids in my ag class that were struggling in the traditional math classroom and that I wanted to help them have a fate different than mine. I didn’t want them to give up on it like I did.
So I went back to school to teach math – this time feeling like a success rather than a failure. What a difference that shift in mindset made. For the first time I really began to understand what was happening and the why behind the math I was doing. I remember the first year I taught Algebra I when I would spend my evenings studying so I was on top of my game for the next day. I myself area models that year for the distributive property to teach polynomials and my world was rocked. For the first time FOIL went back to being something that belonged in the kitchen rather than something I memorized to pass a test.
I have realized in the years since then what a gatekeeper my math experiences really were for me. I have no regrets about where life has taken me but what would have been different if my mathematics education had been more positive? What if I had been encouraged in math rather than being held back? What if I had felt successful rather than always feeling behind? Would I have thought about a career in engineering, as an analyst or in data science? Would I have approached college mathematics classes differently – pursuing them rather than doing my best to avoid them?
How many kids are sitting in classrooms just like me? Desperate to be in the “good math class” so they can be with the peers they so desperately want to be with and then devastated when the fall short? There has to be a better way to keep kids from feeling as though math the gatekeeper that is stopping them from reaching their goals.