Teachers conquering their math anxiety

CHICAGO — In July, in a packed classroom in downtown Chicago, a group composed mostly of early elementary teachers and child care workers read a story about “Wendi,” a fictional preschool teacher who loves reading but struggles in math.

Even though Wendi was drawn to early education where “math was so easy,” she still felt unsure of her skills. In the story, she decided to skip math concepts, leaving them for the teachers her students would have next year.

Across the room, people nodded their heads as they listened.

“I am Wendi. Wendi is me,” said Ivory McCormick, a kindergarten teacher from Atlanta. Several educators in the classroom identified with Wendi, and that was the point. Decades of research shows that math anxiety is a common problem for adults, and surveys show it particularly affects women, who make up nearly 90 percent of elementary teachers in the United States.

Put simply, a lot of elementary school educators hate the prospect of teaching math, even when the math concepts are beginner level.

Teachers mark moments that mirror their experiences as they listen to instructors narrate the story of “Wendi,” a fictional preschool teacher who loves reading but struggles in math. Credit: Camilla Forte/ The Hechinger Report

Researchers at the Erikson Institute, a child-development focused graduate school in Chicago, started the Early Math Collaborative 16 years ago to provide educators with research-backed professional development to help them better teach young students math. One of the goals of Erikson’s annual four-day summer math conference, where the teachers read Wendi’s story, is to assuage their anxiety by exploring how young children learn math and strategizing activities they can do in the classroom.

The Math Problem 

Sluggish growth in math scores for U.S. students began long before the pandemic, but the problem has snowballed into an education crisis. This back-to-school-season, the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms, will be documenting the enormous challenge facing our schools and highlighting examples of progress. The three-year-old Reporting Collaborative includes AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.

Because math competencies build on each other, with skills like counting and learning shapes forming the basis of later knowledge, it’s critical that students receive a solid foundation in the subject, education experts say. The U.S. has long trailed many other developed countries in terms of student math performance, and then scores tanked during the pandemic. Educators say helping teachers in the early grades gain confidence in math could be one key to unlocking America’s post-pandemic math recovery.    

Related: Seven things parents and teachers should know about preschool math

“If you look at how a child is doing with math when they enter kindergarten, that’s the best way to predict how they’re going to be doing with math later, all the way up through eighth grade,” said Jennifer McCray, an associate research professor at Erikson. “Different types of teaching at an early childhood age make a difference in terms of what children are able to do and understand in mathematics.”

When McCormick started teaching preschool in Atlanta five years ago, she felt anxious about teaching a subject she didn’t feel confident in. “Math was something I always had to work really hard at, and it seemed like I never really got that much better at it,” she said.

Teachers who doubt their math ability often worry they will transfer their math aversion onto impressionable students, educators say.

There are studies that validate this fear: First grade students who were taught by teachers with heightened anxiety about math performed worse in the subject than their peers who were taught by less anxious teachers, one study from 2020 found. 

Math specialists say it is a pervasive issue in elementary classrooms, where educators are typically expected to teach every subject, and it often leads to teachers spending less classroom time on math content.

“I have some kids who say, ‘Nan, we haven’t done math for two weeks,’ ” said Nan McCormack, a retired teacher and math specialist who now tutors young students online from her home in Chicago. “It’s one of those subjects that teachers like to avoid and come up with an excuse, and think, if they don’t get it now, they’ll get it next year.”

At the Erikson Institute’s summer conference, teachers gained practice on concepts they’d use in their classrooms. They drew maps to describe directions: Rosie the hen traveled over the fence, and under the tree branch and through the river, for example. They built large 10-sided shapes out of colorful blocks. The exercises benefited their own math skills, too.

“There’s a misbelief that in order to teach early childhood math, you don’t really need to know math well,” Lauren Solarski, a consultant and coach with the Early Math Collaborative at Erikson, told the group of educators. “But having that deep content knowledge, research finds, makes you then able to draw out what’s happening in a child’s play around math — what they’re doing — and know those trajectories, know the math inside and out so that you can be that expert when you’re with the child.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean early childhood teachers need to be experts in advanced geometry or algebra, said Lisa Ginet, director of program design and operations at Erikson. But it does mean they need to know how different lessons that may not seem to be related to math are connected to mathematical thinking and to topics students will learn as they get older.

“[Instruction] doesn’t just live in the materials — you have to talk about what you’re doing,” Ginet told the educators.

Related: You probably don’t have your preschooler thinking about math enough

It isn’t a coincidence that a lot of early elementary teachers lack confidence in their own math abilities, said McCray of Erikson. Sometimes, their lack of confidence is why they go into early ed in the first place. When college students go to their advisors and tell them they want to be a teacher, but aren’t good at math, McCray said they are often encouraged to teach the early grades.

“There’s this idea that you can probably do the least harm there,” McCray said.

Avoiding high-level math courses was a big part of the reason Stacey Stevens switched her major to early childhood education in college. It wasn’t until Stevens did a yearlong professional development session on math after becoming a preschool teacher in Kentucky that she started to feel that she truly understood how to teach it.

Posters made by teachers during one of the conference’s sessions line the walls of the Erikson Institute’s classroom. Credit: Camilla Forte/ The Hechinger Report

“I think that’s what made me most passionate about it in preschool — I didn’t want kids to grow up having the same struggles as me,” said Stevens, who now works for the Kentucky Department of Education as the director of an early childhood regional training center. “I wanted them to understand that four triangles make a square: to actually see it and do it and not just be told that a triangle is a fourth of a square.”

In preschool and early childhood, counting and learning shapes are big components of math, but more abstract ideas, like identifying patterns and spatial awareness, are also foundational to later concepts. And some research has shown that preschoolers who were taught with math curriculum had stronger oral and literacy skills later on compared to their peers.

Related: How to boost math skills in the early grades

Professional development training like Erikson’s summer program can help teachers on the back-end, but colleges need to better prepare them to teach math before they step into classrooms, said Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Teacher preparation programs should not only show future educators how to teach math to young students, the programs should also spend a substantial amount of time ensuring educators understand math pedagogy and have a firm understanding of math concepts themselves, Peske said.  

But on average, most undergraduate and graduate teacher preparation programs do not spend as much time on elementary math content as NCTQ believes is necessary, according to the organization’s 2022 analysis of these programs.

That year, undergraduate elementary teacher preparation programs spent, on average, 85 instructional hours on math content, less than the 105 NCTQ recommends. Meanwhile, graduate programs spent just 14 hours on math content. The recommendations are based on studies that show teachers’ math coursework in college is linked to student achievement.

During an icebreaker session at the Erikson Institute’s summer learning program, Ivory McCormick, a teacher from Atlanta, talks with another educator about her experiences teaching math. Credit: Camilla Forte/ The Hechinger Report

“Most teachers who are preparing to become teachers at the elementary stages, they’re not getting enough instructional hours in elementary math subjects,” Peske said. “If we prepared them better, they would be stronger at both their math content knowledge as well as their ability to teach math, and this would reduce their anxiety and improve student outcomes.”

For McCormick, the early ed teacher from Atlanta, attending Erikson’s professional development conference was the next step in her journey to building up her math confidence.

This year, McCormick moved up to teaching first grade at the Galloway School in Atlanta after teaching preschool and kindergarten classes at the school for several years. She credits her school’s decision to hire a math specialist last year with helping change the way she feels about teaching the subject.

“It was really hard in the beginning for me to find a connection to it — I was kind of just doing it because it was part of my job,” McCormick said. “But this past year, I have kind of revamped my thoughts about what math can be and the ways that we teach it in order to make kids want to learn about it and be enthusiastic about it. Because the way we present it to them holds so much more weight than I think I ever realized.”

This story about overcoming math anxiety was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, as part of The Math Problem, an ongoing series about math instruction. The series is a collaboration with the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms that includes AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times. 

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