Dylan Kane gave me permission to be selfish, and I’m taking him up on it. This one is cathartic for me.
I have apparently developed a bit of a reputation as someone who gets excited about math.
It’s true. I do. At “Math On a Stick” last year, I was so happy, that some of the other volunteers were afraid of me. I regularly burst into applause when I see a beautiful proof. My students admonish me by saying that most 31-year olds go to clubs that don’t start with “math” on Friday nights.
This has not, however, always been the case. Bear with me. (Or stop reading, mathy emotional baggage coming up.)
Why Tracking Students Gives Me Lots of Feels
In 7th grade, I took a test. It was a test to determine whether or not I got into the advanced math class, and thereby the advanced high school classes. The stakes could not have been higher for me. I hated middle school. I was wrapped up in being “the smart girl”. Not because I necessarily liked being that, but that identity was a place of safety for me. It was fine that I didn’t have a lot of friends and that middle school was miserable – that was normal for “the smart girl”. Expected. Because it was expected, it gave me a place to hide. I was able to pretend like the social catastrophe that is middle school was going just fine for me, thank you very much.
But the smart girl gets into the advanced math class.
I was crushed. Defeated. Terrified. I was no longer “the smart girl”, and the shield I had to protect myself was cracked. The few friends I had (also “smart”) were going to abandon me. I was dumb. The veil had been lifted, and everyone could see me for what I was – not smart, not popular, nothing. You might think I’m being melodramatic, but I don’t. I have a terrible memory for most things, but this I remember viscerally. I lost my identity. I lost my protection.
I responded in the only way I knew how, and luckily, it helped me score social points: MATH SUCKS. It’s stupid. Who cares about it? I didn’t want to be in your stupid advanced class anyway. That class is for nerds.
I continued to hate math throughout high school – doing the bare minimum to get by, and burying myself in other advanced classes. English and History wanted me – thank goodness.
In college, I took Calc I, wiped my hands of math forever, and breathed a sigh of relief.
I came back to math by way of my students. Although I say I’m going into my 4th year of teaching, some might call it my 6th (we can talk about that later). I taught in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) for 2 years, and it was there that I learned that math was not, in fact, stupid.
In the RMI, 8th graders have to pass a test to get into high school. It is comprised of English, Marshallese, and math. I was primarily in the RMI to help with English, but my 8th graders needed help with math and I loved them, so I tried. Grumpily.
I was taught math, or at least I remember being taught math, as I do, We do, You do. Watch closely, kid. Look at Example 3. Here’s 50 problems. So when I was asked to teach math, I did that. That’s how we teach math, right? My students, bless them, thought that was really dumb. They wanted to know the WHY of everything, and would not stand for this plug-and-chug nonsense. They just flat out refused to do problems unless they understood them! What nerve!
It may be self-evident to lots of you, but I have rarely in my life ever had my mind so blown as when I figured out why we multiply by a half to find the area of a triangle. It was just the formula. It was in the book.
It hadn’t even OCCURRED to me that there were REASONS for these stupid equations. Look at that gif! It makes so much sense! And it’ll work for all of ’em! Holy crap, that’s amazing!
I decided. This was it. This. I loved this. I wanted to do this forever. I was going to be a math teacher. Explore things with students and see that look on their face when they saw why it worked. Glorious.
Just had to overcome the tiny little problem that I had majored in history.
Re-inventing My Identity
To become a math teacher, I needed to take and pass eight college level math classes…and I had taken Calc I eight years prior…which I had passed by the skin of my teeth…and hated every minute of. Logistically, I could take them all in one year, but whoof. What if I screw up? If I don’t pass Calc II, I can’t start Calc III. No pressure… Signing up to take these classes (and pay for them) was the sort of gamble that made my chest tight and my stomach drop.
I had failed in 7th grade, so it was a tough to believe that I would magically succeed now. But I did. And I did it well. Not to brag (yes I am), but I got A/A-s in every single one of those classes (except probability – which I maintain is because probability is devoid of all intuition). I crushed it. Killed it. I was a math person. (As an aside, this is also excellent support for my belief that ANYONE can learn math. Anyone. When I say those words, I mean those words.)
For me, this was huge. My gamble had worked – I can do math.
Even more validating – my peers thought I had good ideas. It was so exciting to have confirmation, after working with my RMI students, that Math People have debates and conversations to make sense of math at college levels, too! Eek! Yay! Just like we did in the RMI! And through those conversations, I learned so much! I learned the self-confidence to ask questions when I didn’t understand. Because…and this is magical… when you ask for help, and acknowledge you need it, you can learn stuff! And then you’re smarter! Brilliant! All of the exclamation points!!!
In case you couldn’t tell, that year was awesome.
Fluency in math is a superpower. I recently was in a class and witnessed the derivation of an explicit formula for the Fibonacci sequence using eigenvectors. It was easily one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. No joke. The formula just fell out. Everything fit together perfectly. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I got goosebumps and clapped and laughed. That night I went to see a friend and made her sit through an explanation of it because I wanted to share that joy.
In fact, the sharing of these mathematical beauties is one of, if not the reason, I wanted to become a math teacher. I had so much fun with my Marshallese students, figuring out why on earth we would use a²+b²=c² (Ohmigosh, ohmigosh, ohmigosh, draw squares! Ah!! Look! That’s what that means!!), that I wanted to recreate that experience in my job every day.
What I have discovered, however, is that Math Teacher is totally different thing than Math Person. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I get those moments with students, and it is just the best. That said… I am a Math Person. I am confident in that, can say it out loud, and have no reservations. When I say, “I’m a Math Teacher”, though, I have to mentally stamp my foot down a little. Steel myself a bit and repeat it a couple of times. Math Teacher is a far more complicated identity for me.
(“Math Identities, Part II: Math Teacher” coming soon )
4 thoughts on “Math Identities, Part 1: Me (& also tracking stinks)”
Thanks for writing this. I had a very different (mostly positive) experience with math in middle school and high school, and it’s really really important for me as a teacher to get in touch with the different experiences my students have had and their relationships with math. A good reminder about some of the challenges that are easy to ignore but so important to surface and work against.
I took all the advanced AP math courses in HS and did fine on the NY Regents exams, but I didn’t really understand what I was doing in math. I only followed the algorithms. When I took a math course for middle school teachers, the aha! light bulb went off more than once and the formula for the area of a triangle was one of those aha! moments!