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Math Phobia: You Don’t Have to Be an Expert

by Pamela Stolz

Speech bubbles which read 'Math is my worst subject', 'I never understood the way my teacher taught me.', 'I cannot do fractions to save my life!', 'Why are there all of these letters in math, shouldn’t it be numbers??', 'My anxiety level is rising just thinking about math.' But wait, I AM THE TEACHER!!!'

Math, a simple four-letter word that can elicit a large range of emotions, from excitement to complete panic attacks, and everything in between. Often, professional development sessions are created to help instructors teach math. But what if the instructor has some level of inexperience, some math anxiety, or total phobia?

As adult educators, we are often tasked with teaching an extensive array of topics to our learners. Sometimes we are fortunate to teach what we enjoy, and our excitement shows through to those we teach. However, we are also asked to teach outside of our own comfort zone with other topics. Just as our excitement for a particular subject can be contagious, so can our own personal anxieties. Whether you are a first-year teacher or a 20-year veteran, we all have areas that bring our nerves to the surface. Dangling participles anyone? Trying to remember which king was in power during which war can be hopeless for some. Other students, and instructors alike, may throw up their hands when balancing chemical equations or creating Punnett Squares. But, for some reason, math seems to bring out the insecurities in people more so than the other core subjects. Those insecurities can materialize as a particular topic such as geometry, or the entire course itself.

I have been very fortunate to work in some different settings. I have spent my education career working with at-risk youth in alternative programs and in a juvenile detention setting. I have been given the opportunity to work with adult learners through GED® and Integrated Education and Training (IET) programs, and even tutor some in community college. I enjoy math, but admittedly was not that fond of it in middle school. I was fortunate to have a few teachers who gave me the opportunity to see math ‘my way’. Even though I am comfortable with math, I have continued to research other methods for mathematical concepts. This effort has given me the ability to teach my students multiple methods and once we find the method that works best for them, they find success.

The dilemma we now face is how to teach a subject when our own skills may not be 100%. Although it can be tempting to put our students on computer programs or tell them to watch videos, these options are not necessarily solutions. As the pandemic has shown, there are a lot of students who are not successful learning from a computer, regardless of the instructional method (e.g., video, one-to-one, small group, etc.). Even if they can utilize some of the technology, what do they do if they have questions in an area where you are uncomfortable? It is possible that over the next few years, a number of students we receive coming out of the pandemic learning will echo this same sentiment—“I could not learn on the computer.” We are lifelong learners, which also makes us students, too. So, what do we do?

First and foremost, give yourself grace to know it is OK not to be perfect. Just because you are en educator, does not mean you have to know everything. As an educator, you can make mistakes and be unsure– that makes you human. You can also acknowledge, both to yourself and your students, that you do not know the answer but you will get the solution.

Next, think about your personal struggles. Was it a particular teacher? Did a specific topic, such as fractions or algebra, bring you to the point of frustration? Are these the same areas you may avoid teaching, or rush through? Once you have determined where some of your own insecurities lie, you can begin to work on those areas for yourself. The best part about learning now is that you have complete ownership over your learning, from how you learn to what you learn. Find a resource that will help you understand and push you own fears to the corner. Maybe look at different modalities such as manipulatives and pictures. As you overcome your insecurities about a specific topic from slope to math in general, you can become a better and more confident instructor for your students.

Lastly, find resources. The Internet has a multitude of videos and programs designed to show everything and anything. From Khan Academy to Math and Science, there are videos that show every possible way to find the solution to a problem. For those instructors who are struggling with just a few areas, this might be a good starting point. If you were that student who struggled with the one way your teacher taught, look for a video that provides a different method. It may give you an entirely new perspective on the topic, making you more comfortable teaching someone else.

You may be the only instructor in your classroom, but you are not alone! There are hundreds of adult education instructors around the state and no doubt, there are those who have your same insecurities. Network. Connect. You may be the type of learner who needs that face-to-face assistance and not the virtual world. Reach out and ask for help! Once again, it is OK to not be perfect and all-knowing. We tell our learners to ask for help when they are struggling, so we need to allow and encourage ourselves to do the same thing. So many times, instructors do not ask for help. Being an instructor does not mean knowing the content inside-out. Being the instructor does mean, however, that you acknowledge when you need a little assistance yourself. Contact your organization or the VALRC and ask for help. Start or join a professional learning group that focuses on helping instructors master material, as well as the students. Ask if there is someone in the local area who might be a “guru” in that particular subject and ask them for their guidance.

Having students in your class with disabilities, or English Language Learners, can add some additional challenges to an already tough subject to teach. The VALRC has some wonderful resources and people who will be glad to assist. Once again, all you have to do is reach out. Connect with other teachers in the state who have similar class situations. From lesson plans to worksheets, manipulatives to advice, there are plenty of teachers willing to share their materials, methods, and tips.

“I want to learn math from someone who is as lost as I am”, said no student—ever. Math phobia is real on many levels, and not just for the students. Math may not be your favorite subject but being a teacher does not mean you have to teach entirely on your own. As a group, we are our own best resource.

Pamela Stolz is an instructor with Southside Programs for Adult Continuing Education (Region 19). She has more than 22 years of teaching multiple levels of mathematics (grades 6–12) and science to at-risk youth. Her more recent passion of the last four years is teaching ABE/GED® students, both virtually and in-person, which also includes teaching one year as the Integrated Education and Training (IET) instructor for a Certified Nursing Aide (CNA) class. Pamela holds a bachelor of science degree in industrial engineering and operations research from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s degree in special education from Old Dominion University.

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