Picture the scene: You are at the neighborhood barbecue, milling around, eating, drinking and making small talk. Some neighbors you don’t know well start up a conversation and naturally ask what you do for a living, to which you respond, “I am a math teacher.” One or more of the following responses probably follows:
- Oh, I hated math in school!
- Math was my worst subject.
- I’ve never understood algebra – all those symbols
- My poor kids have inherited my bad math genes
- I’m sorry.
- Ugh, math is horrible. How do you do it?
Rarely do we hear something like “Really? That’s terrific! Math is so interesting!” What does it say about our society when the most typical response to “I am a math teacher” is one of fear, inadequacy or disgust?
This has been bothering me more and more of late, especially with increased pressure from Race to the Top and Common Core State Standards to improve mathematics instruction and raise student math achievement. How do we reconcile this societal pressure to do better at math with the societal acceptance that it’s okay to hate math, math is boring, math is hard, and math is only for the “smart people”? How can we inspire students to excel at and engage in mathematics when they are bombarded with messages telling them it’s acceptable to dislike math, math is no fun, and it’s okay to do poorly in math?
Perhaps this conflict between what our society says we want to see in mathematics and what we really believe about mathematics explains some of the trepidation behind teacher’s embracing The Common Core State Standards. We are asking math teachers to fight peer pressure. We know that’s a tough battle, and not done without the support and encouragement of like-minded people.
What’s the solution?
Two key components are long-term, quality training and a strong, supportive learning community. The typical one or two day training models are insufficient for helping teachers change their mathematical instructional practice in a way that truly impacts student learning. Time and collaboration are crucial – time to learn and practice that learning, and time to collaborate with others about the learning and struggles of implementation in order to get feedback and support.
Administrative support and awareness of what Common Core math classrooms will look like is also crucial. Support not only in providing the long term training, time, and opportunities for collaboration, but more importantly support for failure. Changing instructional practices to create engaging, contextual math classrooms is going to be difficult for many. Math teachers are going to fail occasionally the first few times they try something new – and that needs to be okay. There needs to be administrative awareness that real change won’t happen overnight and that math classrooms are going to look and behave differently and that student learning is not just a score on a standardized test.
If school districts adopting the Common Core are not willing to provide quality professional development, time, collaboration and support for teachers, then teachers will succumb to peer-pressure and continue to teach math as they always have. Students will continue to say “I hate math” and society will continue to accept that as normal.