Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

March 12, 2010

Math Anxiety

I had a funny realization this weekend at my second job as an SAT preparation tutor.

I realized that the students I was tutoring knew just as much about math as I did, if not more. I was on the “slow track” for math in school: I did make it to pre-calculus in my senior year, but I have completely blocked it out (are there diagrams involved in calculus? I seem to vaguely remember graphing things). I also never took a math class while I was in college. I had only gotten about as far as they had: junior-year algebra. And yet when they faced a difficult math problem in the homework or on a practice test, they brought it to me and I could usually figure it out without finding the answer in the back of the book.

I couldn’t understand why, if they weren’t able to do these problems, I was. It wasn’t because I had done the problem before–I’ve only taught this course a few times, and there are so many practice problems, I hadn’t even begun to work my way through them all. It wasn’t because I am instinctively good at the SAT style of testing math, the way I am with the SAT style of testing reading and writing. In fact, my own SAT math score was so low, it almost disqualified me from being hired by this tutoring company. When I do figure out how to solve the problems, I can never quite believe I did it. It always surprises me. I wondered what could possibly account for the ability gap between me and my students?

How Math is Tested on the SAT

In order to understand the disparity, you have to understand a few things about how the SAT tests math. If you’ve taken the SAT, you may remember that the easiest questions come first, with each subsequent question getting harder, until you reach the end of the section, where the highest difficulty questions are. Surprisingly, the highest difficulty questions are solved using the same basic math skills that are used to solve the easy questions: no need to know trigonometry, calculus, or game theory to answer these questions. The only thing that makes them “harder” is that there are more steps–more chances to trip up, to make an error, to get confused.

Another surprise is that there are often little tricks and ‘hacks’ built into each problem. I tell my students that if they’re looking at a problem and thinking, “Oh man, this is gonna take forever to solve,” they are probably missing something. See, the SAT rewards those who think flexibly about numbers. If the test designers really wanted to evaluate math skills, they wouldn’t let students bring calculators. Especially when you get into more difficult questions, SAT math is all about strategy and how you think about math. If you can figure out what they’re asking for, and mentally create a mathematical map to find it, you can solve the problem. How you approach the problem is the key.

What Are You Trying to Prove?

I have the luxury of approaching the problems with an open, curious mind. I even look forward to the challenge of solving an unfamiliar high-difficulty problem. I know that if I can’t figure out, I’ll just look it up in the back of the book and walk the student through the book’s explanation. All that my students are able to think about is the effect their SAT score will have on their college admissions, or how disappointed their parents will be if they get a low score. They believe that if they can’t figure it out, the implicit judgement will follow them around for the rest of their careers.

It became very clear to me that other people’s expectations of us affect our performance, for better or for worse. When I look at a difficult test question, I generally think, “Oh no…this one looks really tough. Maybe I should just flip to the explanation in the back now.” But then I take a deep breath and remember: I am the teacher. I am supposed to be smart enough and capable enough to figure this out; that’s why this company decided to hire me. So even if I feel confused or intimidated, that vote of confidence gives me the motivation to put pencil to paper and muddle through. It gives me the courage to try, and keep on trying until I get the right answer (or at least several wrong ones).

My students, on the other hand, are approaching the problem from a very different perspective. First of all, while I know that I am there to help, my students know that they are there to be helped. This may encourage them to view themselves as, well, helpless. Secondly, the process of being tested puts students in the uncomfortable spot of having to prove their own intelligence. When they get to the high-difficulty questions, the test is whispering to them, “Here’s where we separate the smart kids from the dumb ones. So go ahead, see if you can solve it. Which pile will you end up in?”

Brain Freeze

In his book How Children Fail, John Holt talks about the tension we experience when we are trying to finish something without making any mistakes. He realizes that some of his students are making mistakes on purpose to break the tension.

“Worrying about mistakes is as bad as–no, worse–than worrying about mistakes they have made. Thus, when you tell a child that he has done a problem wrong, you often hear a sigh of relief. He says, “I knew it would be wrong.” He would rather be wrong, and know it, than not know whether he was wrong or not…When the paper was turned in, the tension was ended. Their fate was in the lap of the gods. They might still worry about flunking the [test], but it was a fatalistic kind of worry, it didn’t contain the agonizing element of choice, there was nothing more they could do about it. Worrying about whether you did the right thing, while painful enough, is less painful than worrying about the right thing to do.”

I think this same relief of tension manifests in SAT takers when they leave an answer blank. Whenever the student brings their question to me, the rest of the problems may be marked up, with their work written out, but the difficult problem is always spotless. I admit I haven’t been doing this very long, but I have never seen a student get stuck in the middle of one of these math problems. When I have faced really difficult problems in my student years, it always felt like some kind of mental paralysis: I’d try frantically to figure out what to do, but all I could think was, “I don’t know. I just don’t know!”  I couldn’t figure out where I was going, how to get there, or even how to begin.

Solving a difficult SAT math question hinges on approaching it properly: you have to look at what the problem says, what it asks for. You have to think about how to use the information given to get from point A to point B. You have to clear your mind and let the numbers and figures speak to you. If you can’t get to that open, curious, relaxed-yet-alert state of mind, you won’t be able to figure out how to approach the problem, and you’ll be sunk. You’ll hand me your paper, saying helplessly, “I didn’t know where to start.”

Thawing Out

I think the only thing that really helped me out of my math anxiety was knowing that I’m no longer judged by my math skills or lack thereof. I’ve relaxed enough to be able to treat them as intriguing challenges, fun ways to stretch my mind. I hate that I can’t give my students the same permission not to worry about it so much. Also, since I haven’t prepared the problem ahead of time, I can’t really “lead” the student through it. I kind of turn the problem over and over in my head, and then once I’ve got it, I hand it to the student and say, “There.” I don’t think that’s really the eye-opening learning experience they need.

Have you suffered from math anxiety? Have you ever helped any one through it? What are your strategies for helping students move from fear to curiosity to delight?

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January 5, 2010

You heard it here first: I am Deeply Unqualified to talk about this stuff

I thought very long and hard before starting this blog. I knew that I was passionate about education: I have been a fan of the unschooling movement since high school, and I love the books of John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Alfie Kohn, and Paulo Freire, among others. It’s a subject that I never get tired of talking about (as many of my friends can attest). Quite simply, it lights me up.

And since my friends have learned to avoid the topic of education around me, I wanted to find another outlet for my enthusiasm, where I could develop my ideas and start conversations with like-minded people.

But who was I to open my big mouth on the topic of education? Sure, I’ve done some tutoring, but I haven’t studied to be a teacher. I wasn’t homeschooled myself, and I don’t even have any children to homeschool now. But some of the most famous and successful personal finance bloggers (JD Roth, Adam Baker, and Trent Hamm, to name a few) don’t have degrees in finance. In fact, many of them started out as the exact opposite of financial experts: each writer I linked to was in a mountain of debt when he began blogging about the topic. They began it because they wanted something in their lives to change, and they felt that blogging was a good way to not only immerse themselves in learning about the topic, but to create a community where others could turn for advice and support.  These men have helped so many people with their blogs, and they inspire little ole’ unqualified me to do the same.

Saying that a person’s opinions on School and education are invalid because they were only a student and never a teacher is like saying that an adult, who no longer practices the religion she was raised in, should not be taken seriously when she criticizes that religion because she was never a member of the clergy.

I was there. I did the student thing for 14 years. I was deeply influenced by the experience. I think it’s important to critically examine the role that Schooling has played in shaping our lives, instead of just believing what are told about it: we’ll never be able to cope with adult life unless we are forced to do unpleasant things; degrees and credentials are the only tickets to success; if we don’t get good grades, it’s because we aren’t trying hard enough.  You know what?  I call shenanigans!

As John Holt said:

“Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very center of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we may make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.”

By publishing this blog, I claim my right to “think about [my] own experiences” and “find and make the meaning of [my] own [life].” I’m no longer afraid to say or do things just because I haven’t been certified and judged worthy to say and do them. It seems to me that the root of the mortgage crisis was a population trained in allowing “others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives.” We hadn’t thought we could afford such an expensive house until the man behind the big desk told us to trust him: he’d run the numbers, and we were going to wind up wealthier than ever!  Oops.  I guess it doesn’t always pay to let somebody else do our thinking for us.

As John Taylor Gatto points out,

Successful children do the thinking I assign them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or actually it is decided by my faceless employers. The choices are theirs, why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.”

Paulo Freire further argues,

“Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.”

I should point out that John Holt was a teacher for 20 years before becoming an advocate of educational reform and inventing homeschooling. John Taylor Gatto taught in the public schools of New York City for 26 years and was named New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. Paulo Freire was appointed Director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in Pernambuco, Brazil. So the ideas expressed on this blog do not belong solely to one angsty, unenlightened college drop-out.

This blog is not where I expound on the infinite wisdom I gained in a few years of tutoring.  It is where I comment on the national conversation about education, share the revolutionary ideas of some very insightful writers whom I admire, and talk about my personal experiences as a student and a teacher.

This blog is not about criticizing teachers. It is about criticizing the institutionalization of education.

This blog does not debate what Schools should teach. It debates the heretofore unquestioned idea that we should allow a complete stranger to tell us what, how, and when we should learn.

I will close with one last quote from John Holt:

“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that. And we are not likely to become the majority in my lifetime. This doesn’t trouble me much anymore, as long as this minority keeps on growing. My work is to help it grow.”

I share his belief, and this blog is just my small contribution to helping the minority grow.

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