“To the very last, the desire to challenge oneself and understand more. And to the very last: doubt”
-Carlo Revelli, Seven Brief Lessons On Physics
Teaching mathematics is not easy. Unfortunately, those words—not easy—are falsely correlated to a negative experience of learning mathematics. Which, by association, means that the teaching of mathematics becomes a laborious procedure, taking on disproportional pressure to meet expectations of current pedagogy.
No teacher group undergoes more scrutiny for delivering mathematics in these pressurized and unhealthy conditions than elementary teachers.
This is not only intellectually wrong, it’s also morally wrong.
We are all aware of the fact that there are fewer math specialists in the elementary panel as there are in the grade bands above. This cannot be disputed, and to cast some realistic light on the situation, probably won’t be improved in the near future. However, this is not as large as a problem as math education makes it out to be. Well, first of all, nobody currently teaching in the K to 12 curricula in North America—including high school teachers—possesses more than 0.01% of the mathematical knowledge in the universe. So, if we are asking elementary teachers to up their mathematical content game, then we need to ask everyone—nobody is excluded from this self-directed and self-motivated learning. Remember, the quality of our teaching is directly related to the quality of our own learning—our own desire to keep learning.
As a former high school teacher, I can confidently say that the work of an elementary teacher is more taxing emotionally and academically than that of a high school teacher. I taught two subjects—math and physics—for the bulk of my 19-year career. I also taught students that were, for the most part, fairly developed socially, emotionally, and intellectually. Elementary teachers are teaching multiple subjects and are entrusted with developing the key, aforementioned markers for personal development. We need to applaud them first, if anything, for the tremendously challenging job they do everyday.
I only have to look to the teachers of my own children and realize how lucky they are—and I– to have teachers who my kids adore to no end. Are they great math teachers? No. But, the key point is that they have all the potential to become wonderful math teachers because they have kindness, empathy, and animated wonder hard-wired into them.
So, instead of constantly lobbing up the general mathematical content deficiencies of elementary teachers and instantly creating discussions that are framed in negativity and division, let’s start with all the wonderfully positive things that elementary teachers bring into the classroom each and every day, and build our mathematical communities with honesty, safe conversations, and trust—without these things, no mathematical professional development is going to have the lasting impact that it wants.
Tip # 1: Build Trust with Colleagues
Create space and time for teachers to share their own experiences and understanding of mathematics with colleagues/administrators, naturally fleshing out any normal uncertainties, confusion, and anxiety that they might have. This is how mathematics was discovered—through human conversations of wonderful doubt. Aligning our own mathematical misconceptions in a celebratory fashion is not just pedagogically sound, it is simply how the entire, global history of mathematics evolved. It didn’t pop out of a can as a gift to the selected few. It was a messy and playful ordeal. If anyone knows about these things, it would be elementary teachers!
A great TED Talk that illuminates these ideas is Dan Finkel’s 5 Principles of Extraordinary Math Teaching. It has now almost half-a-million views.
Tip #2: Practice Self-Directed Learning with Inspiring Resources
Use web resources that emphasize a philosophy of learning mathematics that is embedded in curiosity, awe, and wonder. Three resources that I use heavily and highly recommend are:
Tip #3: Disarm Your Classroom With Your Mathematical Journey
Use your mathematical doubt, honesty, and curiosity to disarm the mathematical anxiety of your students and your classroom. Talk openly and candidly about your math background—whatever it is and whatever it is not. Let kids see you as a mutual learner, who will be more empathic with their learning of mathematics. As Dan Finkel says in his TED Talk, you are not the answer key! That is not something to be ashamed of—that is something to be championed and celebrated!
Tip #4: Let Arithmetic Be The Gateway To Deeper Understanding
Arithmetic. Arithmetic. Arithmetic. It is to mathematics what location is to real estate. Spend lots of time dabbling with numbers and learning about their magical qualities and properties. You will not only increase your strength in number sense and fluency, but more importantly, you will enjoy the whimsy and beauty that is inherent in numbers, and quite often, learn about the history of mathematics. Take for example, something like the Collatz Sequence. Take any number and perform the following sequence of operations:
- If it is Even, divide by 2.
- If it is Odd, multiply by 3 and add 1.
- So, for let’s say the number 10, the sequence would look like this: 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1.
Work out the sequences for some random numbers from 1 to 20. What do you notice?
Now share this with your students!
Tip #5: Learn for You First, Then Your Students
Too often teachers work hard to create better learning opportunities for their students. While this is noble, it cannot bypass our own desires to learn. When oxygen masks fall in an emergency in an airplane, you are instructed to help yourself first—thereby being more effective to help other passengers. Teaching mathematics works the same way. You must be inspired and motivated by learning mathematics—a lifelong endeavor—to facilitate an organic and human experience with mathematics.
Elementary teachers are crucial to introducing mathematics to students. Their struggles and myriad of questions will follow the historical narrative of how mathematics is learned. We can honor that by supporting these primary teachers with our deepest empathy and gratitude.