“You’re going to be my math person.” These words? Terrifying for someone like me (yes, a teacher) who almost failed 6th grade math and inexplicably skipped 8th grade math and took Algebra independently, who always asked “But why does it work?” and never got answers, who bailed out on taking the AP Calc test the day-of and was totally okay with paying the $15 it took to send the booklet back because it saved me from that misery, who had to take calc again in college (the most dropped class at my university) with a professor whose first language was Spanish and whose second language was calculus and whose third language was English.
“You’re going to be my math person.” These words were spoken by my amazing principal, who had faith that I could be a “math person.” Who would depend on me to be a “math person.” Though I had somehow managed to salvage my interest for math despite very negative experiences with it, I have always considered myself a “literacy” person. Turns out, there are a LOT of “literacy” persons, especially in my school. It’s a wonderful atmosphere, one that I hope remains for good, but attitudes about math tend to be very different from attitudes about reading. Sure, you’ve probably heard, “I don’t read” or even “I don’t like to read.” But we all know that reading is an essential part of anyone’s everyday life and that, even if we don’t prefer to do it in our spare time or even if it takes us a little longer to do, we are capable of becoming better readers. But math? Nah, you’re either a math person or you aren’t. Right? WRONG.
This idea of either being born with math ability or not is a predominantly Western belief–it is not pervasive in Eastern countries like Singapore or Japan. A Western belief likely not helped by standardized assessments, an obvious lack of women leaders in mathematics, poor mathematics instruction (forced timed tests and algorithm-before-conceptual-understanding methods) and negative math self-talk by parents and teachers alike. A Western belief that ignores brain science that tells us our brains have an amazing capacity to change and grow.
I’ve had to change and grow in my current position. I’ve had to take on implementing a math intervention program at our school. And it has been one of the most fun (yes, challenging) things I’ve accomplished. I’ve had to re-evaluate my beliefs and mindset about math. I’ve had to relearn the 7th and 8th grade math I simply didn’t in 7th and 8th grade. I’ve had to break myself of algorithmic thinking and consider the conceptual backgrounds of algebra.
And because of it? So. Many. Opportunities.
So, can you become a “math person”? Yes.
Because one day, someone said to me: “You’re going to be my math person.”
And, here I am. Your math person.
And there you are. A math person, too.