Math Teachers Have a Dirty Little Secret

Just like running a marathon, doing math problems takes work. But grownups often make kids think it's effortless! When a math teacher presents a problem in front of a class it goes something like this:

  1. The teacher grabs her notes.
  2. She walks to the board.
  3. She writes a problem on the board.
  4. She explains the step-by-step solution with precision and elegance.
  5. She repeats the steps above a few times, then assigns the homework.

And based on this, students perceive that math is done just this way. They think math teachers can look at a problem and just KNOW how to do it, automatically.

Here’s what happens before the classroom lesson:

  1. The teacher sits down at home with the textbook and paper.
  2. She opens the book to the lesson’s topic.
  3. She works through an example problem.
  4. She gets confused, and reworks it.
  5. She figures out what she did wrong and how to do it better.
  6. She repeats steps 3-5 until she feels she has enough examples for the class.

She is now practiced enough so she can present it smoothly and elegantly, without error.

You don’t run a marathon without training.

Billy Steve woke up one morning and said “I ate pasta last night. I drank lots of water. I look great in spandex. I think I’ll head over to that marathon today and give it a shot.”

Billy Steve’s friends call him BS for short.

Every now and then someone does this. But they finish the day sucking on a bottle of Advil and crying to their mamma.

This is not how marathons are run.

There is struggle. There is pain. There is tenacity.

There’s rubbing dirt in it. Taking salt pills. Getting over it. And keeping going.

And nobody hides this.

Denying the work is a bad example.

Math teachers never show students the struggle. They hide it.

It’s our dirty little secret.

Students don’t even know that there is a struggle. They think, “I shouldn’t be struggling with these problems.”

And worse yet, they think, “If I’m struggling, then I’m clearly not good at math.”

Students (and later as adults and parents) believe that math teachers know how to do a problem when they first look at it.

This is not true. Math teachers often have no clue where to begin either.

It’s time to come out.

If you’re a math teacher, stop preparing in secret. Train yourself to be more comfortable in the unknown in front of people. Train your students to watch how the problem solving process really works.

If you’re a parent, you can do the same. Work through your challenges out loud.

Show children that finding a solution – to a math problem or a life problem – is a challenge. It’s often hard but almost always possible.

Let’s stop keeping our struggles behind closed doors. Free yourself from the dirty little secret!


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2 Responses to Math Teachers Have a Dirty Little Secret

  1. Oh, Bon! This is so true and so good. I think I may record myself at home working through problems before I teach a lesson, to allow the students what I really do. Wow! This is simply…simple, yet amazing at the same time! It’s like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (if you like that and you’re not allergic to peanut butter). Again, I really enjoy reading your posts.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Krystal!

      Neat idea recording yourself. It might be fun also recording the lesson in class and putting them side by side.

      That may be a neat video series!

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