As a child, I was always pretty Type A. I liked things a certain way– (my mom tells me I was very particular about my clothes from a very young age), and I didn’t like to be corrected or to be wrong. (One time a lifeguard blew his whistle at me -I was probably 5 or 6- because I was running by the side of the pool, and I felt SO much shame.) I carried all of that Type A “wiring” into my earliest math experiences, so I certainly don’t blame any of my teachers for my perception of math as an exercise in answer-getting. While it’s difficult to remember specific math experiences from my elementary years, I know for a fact that I never thought about math as flexible or open. I approached every subject and learning experience with a desire to be right; I never raised my hand if I wasn’t sure of an answer, and I highly valued my teacher’s praise of me as “smart.”
My memories of middle and high school math are more vivid. By that point, I had labeled myself as a “language arts person” and not a math/science person, even though I took both AP Calculus and AP Physics. I always was more attracted to literature and the connections and openness I found in it, and math and science both seemed very black and white and less accessible to me. My math teachers really were fantastic- they cared about me and supported me so much, but they taught math just as many teachers were teaching it in the 90’s; I learned a lot of discrete skills and memorized a lot of formulas. The message I most remember telling myself was, “I don’t belong here.” When everyone was solving homework problems on the board and I felt unsure of my solution, I felt I didn’t belong. When answers came quickly for everyone else and I needed more time, I felt I didn’t belong. I’ll never forget studying for the AP Calculus exam with my good friend, Nishta– we both considered ourselves outcasts of the class because none of it came easily for us, and when we both scored 4’s, we lost our minds with excitement….mostly because it meant we were DONE with math (I tested out of math in college and never took one math course during my four years there– not surprisingly, I majored in English literature).
It wasn’t until I taught math to 3rd graders much later that I began to see math differently. I remember teaching a measurement lesson during which my students used nonstandard units of measure (their feet) to measure objects in our classroom– and thinking, wow, I never really thought about why standard units of measure are necessary. I only remembered using the ruler, not considering why it was needed in the first place. Looking back, I was beginning a journey of being retaught math– so that year especially, I learned right alongside my students. Through a number of experiences as a teacher, particularly attending Harvard’s Project Zero conference, I began to value and prioritize my students’ thinking – their process to get to an answer over the answer itself.
A few other key experiences: I took a Masters-level math methods course a few years later, and I was forced to consider why algorithms and tricks worked in a way I never had before. Then I started coaching teachers and realized my experiences in math were very similar to what I was seeing in LOTS of classrooms, but I had a ton to learn about how to coach in a way that supported teachers as we tried to “break the cycle”. In the past couple of years, Jo Boaler’s book Mathematical Mindsets, Carol Dweck’s Mindset, and most recently Tracy Zager’s Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had all have had a significant impact on me as I realized the label I had always given myself of “not a math person” had nothing to do with my math ability but everything to do with my mathematics experiences.
At this point, I would say I’m on a journey of developing a deep passion for mathematics– now I see that the same connections and beauty that drew me to literature from an early age are also what make mathematics so intriguing and wonderfully complex. I am also much more free to admit when I don’t understand something, and I’m learning to call out the fixed mindset messages in my brain (those “I don’t belong here” messages) and reframe them as opportunities to learn.