Listen to the Stories


“Mathematics ability is not real, but the trauma associated with it is” – Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez

When you teach math, this is a normal conversation:

“Where do you work?”

“I’m a teacher.”

“What do you teach?”

“High school math.”

“Math!? Woah, I could never do that! I was horrible in math.”

With that there is usually involved a period of waiting. The person you are talking with feels you out to see if you care or want to talk about that aspect of their life at all. If you do want to, they will usually tell you something interesting. Something you can maybe use in your career, something that might make you better at what you do. At the very least, you will have connected to another human being, something that math teachers are not all that famous for.

The other day I was talking to a woman who talked to me about how she had gone to a school that was implementing a new form of math teaching with “weird problems and little things you moved around and played with.” She told me that her teacher was older and didn’t really want to be teaching that way, possibly she didn’t want to be teaching at all. She told me that test scores in her class plummeted that year and that it probably did them more harm than good.

This is a pretty normal kind of story about bad teachers, bad programs, whatever. I knew that if I could go back in time and interview everyone involved I might find a lot of complex stuff. A teacher who would like to retire but is taking care of an elderly mother, a program that was well intentioned but badly rolled out, kids whose own lives weren’t that amenable to changing how they learned in the middle of the year. All kinds of things could have happened, but it definitely gave me pause about all the crazy things I try on my own students and it’s a new reminder that I can carry with me to ask myself, “is this new thing I’m doing really going to help?”

Fast forward to the other day when I took an uber to the BART station on my way to the NCTM annual meeting. Same kind of conversation happened but when the driver told me he was from Mexico, we started speaking in Spanish. I talked about how I was a bilingual math teacher in New Mexico and had just started teaching Spanish-speaking kids here in California. He told me about his own math trauma and then told me about his childhood friend who also lived here with him and raised his kids here. His friend didn’t have papers and neither did his son, though he did really well in school. He graduated somewhere at the top of his class, got into college with scholarships, and just couldn’t handle all of the pressure. He ended up stepping in front of a train.

Again I pictured the kid and whether or not he was someone I might overlook in my classes because he did well. I am now starting to want to have some more resources at my fingertips to help kids. I was on my way to a great conference which had tons of sessions about breaking down barriers for kids and giving them more access. About rethinking mathematics as a gatekeeper and to try to figure out ways to open the gates, remove them from their hinges for good. It was great but still, when I came back to work, I had a parent meeting waiting for me, and more stories. Stories about why that student is struggling, then more stories from other students about why they had been gone from school for so long, why they wanted to drop out, why they keep getting suspended. Tons of stuff swirling around in my brain that suggests pedagogy won’t cut it. Our kids are too valuable to not be seeking smarter solutions. I know they’re out there somewhere, I’m supposed to be living in the most innovative place on earth right now. It’s time for some problem solving.

In the meantime, I’ll keep listening. I suck at classroom management but I know this,  kids who feel heard are much more ready to participate in your projects and problems of the day and portfolios and practice sets. So the next time someone tells you about their math trauma, stop and listen to the stories.


5 thoughts on “Listen to the Stories

  1. Loved this! Keep up the awesome work! All mathematics teachers are identity workers, so classroom management is necessarily either supporting the idea that mathematics involves emotions, values, & the body, or it is likely shutting that down (i.e., telling students there is no space for that in your classroom). We have a lot of healing to do in our society when it comes to the trauma that people have endured through mathematics.

    1. Because of this, allowing a space for that in your classroom often opens up some unintended floodgates. Classroom management to me means authority, control, and subjugation. Things I want to undo. I want an anti-classroom management where kids learn how to take control for themselves. Not an easy road though. You are dealing with years of pent-up negative emotions, multiplied by 30. But once its out of the box…

  2. I, too, teach a population of students, many of whom come from a high anxiety/high stress environment at home or in previous schools, many of whom have learning disabilities, and while I’ve been working with kids like this for the last 15 years, I don’t have any magic solutions except to listen to your students, and listen to them genuinely. Their horror stories are real, their struggles are real, and if I can make it clear that I’m on their side, that we’re in it together, and that I really believe that math is fun and they will find it fun and possible, then maybe we can get to the end of the school year having made some great progress in trying to counter their math trauma. You’re doing the right things and hopefully classroom management becomes a non-issue.

    1. When I say things like “I suck at classroom management,” I guess I should be careful. What I really mean is, I hate the whole “classroom management” industry and don’t subscribe to it. All the workshops and books and techniques and school policies. Kids aren’t supposed to be “managed.” They need to be taught to make good choices and this means playing the long game and building relationships and listening to their stories. This is especially true with kids who hate math. I don’t have any classroom rules posted, I don’t give participation points, I just shake their hands when they come in the door and try to be a person. Sometimes I have rough days but those are teachable moments, and in the long run it pays off.

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