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What Would Happen If We Stop Saying We “Can’t Do Math”?

What Would Happen If We Stop Saying We “Can’t Do Math”?

“I can’t do math!” Raise your hand if you, someone in your family, or anyone in your friend circle has ever said these words or something similar. I can imagine all of the raised hands across America. I sit here, solemnly, and shake my head as I really begin to think about how many times I have heard people say this to me, a math teacher. This leads me to ask the questions: Can you speak Japanese or French? Can you solve a physics problem or balance a chemical equation? Do you remember biology? Can you play the piano? Do you remember the correct conjugation for the verb “lie”? Can you sing? (Be honest.) If you answered “no” to any of those questions, then I want you to really think. Why is it acceptable to exclaim, in public, often loudly, that you “can’t do math”? It almost seems as if this is an exhortation of the masses. I do not hear lots of people say “I can’t read!” So why is it acceptable to use “math” as the butt of the joke?

As I approach the sunset of my classroom teaching career, I started to reflect a bit about why this type of flippant disengagement with math (or actually the idea of doing math) is starting to have more of an impact on me. I realize that I am concerned about how these statements impact “our kids.” I am rarely asked what I have observed with regard to how students, colleagues, the art of teaching and student learning have changed over the past twenty-nine years. I am rarely asked what I think high school, elementary, and middle school teachers can do to improve our instructional practice for the benefit of our students and their access to mathematics. I am rarely asked in what ways math teachers can help students work through their math anxiety.

Frequently, instead, I am asked questions by those who engage in social media debates. “What is the answer, Mary?”

Anyway, I began to ask myself, “Has my professional practice been reduced to an arithmetic problem from Twitter? Is this what people think math teachers do?"

Recently, while sitting in a meeting for the 2022 DE State Teacher of the Year candidates, a retired teacher said something that I found profound. I will paraphrase: “People do not really know what we (teachers) do.” As I began to unpack that, I realized how right she was. Wow! Let’s think about it. How many people really know what we (teachers) do? Better yet, how many people really know what high school math teachers do? Is this why so many people say that they “can’t do math”? And is any of this important? Oh my goodness, my mind started racing again.

Many years ago, I spoke to our faculty about the power of words and how teachers can directly impact student behavior with what we say around them.

Words are powerful. Words have weight. When teachers say “I can’t do math,” what does that do to students?

Then my mind began to try to find a solution (math teacher)…. Is it fear? Could it be that simple? I can hear Aragorn’s speech (Lord of the Rings) in my mind “I see in your eyes, the same fear that would take the heart of me!” I think I might be onto something. Fear! That’s it! People are afraid. But what are they afraid of? There is a lot to unpack here. I can’t begin to tackle it on my own. What was I thinking when I started to write this blog? Did I think I could answer the question?

This past spring, I felt so strongly about all of this that I wrote a “Mary P - sign”, taped it to the wall behind my desk, and considered making copies to post around the school. (I did not actually post it throughout the school, but I thought about it.) Here it is below:

Please help us out…

Be mindful that students look up to teachers (adults).

If at all possible, please refrain from speaking negatively about “doing math.”

If you speak negative words in front of students, saying that you can’t do math/aren’t good at math/don’t use math – (or think you don’t use math)/ hate math/etc… then why should they (students) learn math?

We do not know what skills they will need during their lifetimes….

Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.

Ok, yes…. It sounds preachy. Yes. It sounds (pick a word that fits for you).  But I just can’t be silent any longer when I hear words from educators who profess to want students to learn, yet are (although unwittingly) negatively impacting the mindset of students.  What are your thoughts? Do you agree? Disagree? Never thought about it?  Can we all make an effort to speak positively?

I almost deleted this entire blog and started to write another one on a different topic.  Then I looked on Facebook and someone had posted the following……

Oh boy….


Mary E. Pinkston has been a math educator for twenty-nine years in the Brandywine School District in Wilmington, Delaware. She has served on the executive boards of the Brandywine Education Association, the Delaware Council of Teachers of Mathematics .and the Delaware Professional Standards Board. A National Board Certified Teacher, Mary was the 2010 Delaware State Teacher of the Year, 2011 Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education (Math), 2011 NEA Foundation Global Fellow, and an NEA Foundation Awards for Teaching Excellence semifinalist. Mary also enjoys time with her church family, and involvement in several service organizations, most notably Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.




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