Math anxiety doesn’t just affect students

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Dr. Rachel McAnallen went to college in the ’50s, when very few students with a rural upbringing like hers were going to university. She said that she majored in math not because she was particularly good at it, but because it was “one of the things I liked.” After becoming a middle school and later high school math teacher, she noticed that some students would come into her classroom literally afraid of math – faster heart rates, an inability to concentrate, and disengagement with the subject.

McAnallen proceeded to learn more about the phenomenon researchers like Dr. Sheila Tobias had recently developed a name for: “math anxiety.” As she began to observe more math classrooms, she noticed something important.

Many teachers had math anxiety as well.

Math anxiety in teachers, a problem that the education community has been aware for several decades, remains a significant challenge. McAnallen’s dissertation work, which included a survey of almost 700 elementary school teachers, found that 38 percent reported experiencing some kind of math anxiety.

The problem is especially apparent in the elementary school teacher population. This could be because of the diverse amount of material elementary school teachers are expected to teach.

Often teachers with math anxiety are uncomfortable working out problems in front of a class for fear of getting the wrong answer.

Often teachers with math anxiety are uncomfortable working problems in front of a class for fear of getting them wrong. (Photo credit: Magister Mathematicae)

Jenna Laib, a K-8 math specialist based in Massachusetts, said that during teacher training and student teaching, “people care that there is this issue, but if there are other strengths to compensate for it, especially in elementary education, they’re not going to fail because they don’t like math.”

Math anxiety manifested in the classroom

Laib and McAnallen both noted that it is readily apparent when a teacher has math anxiety. They will often spend the least amount of time possible on math lessons and focus almost exclusively on rules.

“A kid will come up with a different way of solving the problem, and it so frightens the teachers that they say, ‘no, you can’t do it that way,’” said McAnallen. “You’ll have very gifted, creative kids, and the teacher will say ‘it’s my way or the highway.’ You can teach kids how to think mathematically, but if the teacher’s never been allowed to think mathematically, or been allowed to be creative in mathematics, they’re not going to allow it in their classroom.”

Strategies to help teachers

Support for teachers to overcome math anxiety and improve their teaching varies from school to school, often depending on how much administrators prioritize it. Laib said that her greatest success usually comes with more experienced teachers, who are often less worried about having “something to prove” as compared to younger teachers. Additionally, teachers who seek out her help need to be willing to invest time in tackling their math anxiety.

“If they are experiencing math anxiety, they do kind of view it as punishment, a little bit,” Laib said. “So I have to build up a real rapport with them before we can do anything.”

Laib model teaches lessons and helps teachers figure out how to incorporate more reasoning, inquiry, and mathematical thinking into their classrooms. Occasionally, she will recommend a teacher get content help in a specific area. The success of all of these strategies depends on the time teachers are willing to put in, but Laib also said she thinks consistent investment over the course of a teacher’s career is the most effective way to address the problem.

“We cram so much into that student teaching time – they’ll be exposed to really great things that they can’t absorb, because it’s just too much,” she said. “It really needs to be more systematic and long term and built in. It requires administrative support, time and space to do professional development, dedication and willingness to put a little bit of money behind it.”

Long-term effects

Many teachers with math anxiety attribute their troubles with the subject to a particularly poor teacher in their own education. Laib said that the effects of math anxiety on students can be seen even in the year just after having a math-phobic teacher.

McAnallen notes another problem teachers with math anxiety face: speed. "We never say to someone ‘ spell eucalyptus fast’. We always say take your time and think. So quit telling kids you have to do math fast."

McAnallen notes another problem teachers with math anxiety face: speed. “We never say to someone ‘ spell eucalyptus fast’. We always say take your time and think. So quit telling kids you have to do math fast.” (Photo credit: Maine DOE)

“We have two fourth grade teachers that are really math phobic, really rigid,” she said, “and a year later, I’m teaching a fifth-grade lesson and trying to elicit some thinking from the kids, do something that’s more out of the box and investigatory, and the kids from those classes were not interested. They couldn’t engage with the problem, they couldn’t ask questions about it. I don’t think they were like that when they were in third grade. I think this was built up in them.”

Beilock et al., studying early elementary math teachers, noted a gender component to math anxiety as well. In classrooms with a female teacher, girls with more math anxious-teachers were more likely to have lower math achievement and endorse common stereotypes such as “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading.”

Moving to higher mathematics requires strong basic skills to build on work in previous years. It is particularly worrying, therefore, that so many elementary school teachers seem to suffer from math anxiety – their students could be missing out on developing foundations crucial to succeeding in any STEM field.

“They’re really going to struggle in higher math if they don’t have initiative, if they can’t problem solve,” said Laib.  “And I think it ultimately turns them off to it. They’re not excited about math or science in ways they could have been.”

To McAnallen, there need to be more teachers who genuinely have a passion for the subject to stop the cycle of math anxiety in students.

“If you were to ask me to go in and teach reading I would say, oh my gosh, I can read, but teaching reading is a skill. Just because someone can add five plus two,” she said, “doesn’t mean that they’re a good math teacher. It’s a skill and it’s an art. And that’s it in a nutshell.”