Loving Math: It’s not about being good or bad at it

I love teaching. I love talking to my students about math all day long. When they don’t understand a concept, I relish the opportunity to work with them, and as team, figure out what’s going wrong and how we can fix it together. Like a mechanic trying to figure out where that rattling noise is coming from, I love peeking inside their brains and helping them figure out their own thinking. We tackle problems together, make mistakes, ask questions, make more mistakes and try again.  If I counted the number of times I say “why” or “show me” in my class, I am sure it would rival the number of likes a cute puppy video gets on YouTube.

I want to go back in time to tell my 6th grade self that I would become math teacher. The 1986 me would fall over in disbelief. That girl believed that she was not “good” at math.  This woman knows that that was a bunch of malarkey.  Learning math is not about being “good” or “bad.” Instead, it is about learning to work hard, about developing the grit to noodle through a task with persistence.

Rear view of children solving math equation on chalkboard

High standards have been a gift in my classroom, inspiring and equipping my students to work harder and smarter every year.  They grant me the opportunity to focus on the most important skills for my students instead of scrambling to cover any and every math topic.

Instead of teaching my students rules and tricks to shortcut math, they learn the whys of math, so that they understand not only the procedures they should use, but also the concepts behind them.

I am a math intervention teacher.  Before the standards, I spent a lot of time working with students to re-learn skills they hadn’t mastered in their “regular” class. We spent a lot of time reviewing computation and memorizing facts. I usually felt frustrated, not only because my students were behind, but also because I felt like we didn’t have the time or resources to do the things that would actually help them catch up. I felt trapped, and my curriculum was robotic – review, reteach, play a game, and repeat.

Now my classroom is a completely different place.

The focus on fewer topics, the pursuit of conceptual understanding, the hunt for ways to apply skills to the world around us, the extension of learning from skill to skill and grade to grade have all created in environment in which my students and I feel alive. The work is rigorous, but not impossible, and my students are unafraid of working hard.

Every year I get rid of whole binders full of worksheets and materials I used before Common Core – a testament to how much my classroom has changed in the last five years.  When I look at these pages, I see that the work is too easy or doesn’t require deep thinking on the part of my students. I’ve also come across a few activities from previous years, marked with small post-its where I’ve scrawled “too difficult” or “do this one together.” When my students and I tackled these tasks now, they don’t seem as challenging as they did before.  It’s not that I’ve made them easier. It’s that my kids know more about math than they ever had before. High standards are working.

The proof is in my recycle bin, full of mindless, obsolete worksheets. It’s in my smile, when I watch my students master tasks that were too difficult for students in years past. It’s in my students’ resilience, their positive attitudes towards math, and their growth.


About the Author

Liz Gardner is a 6th grade Math Intervention teacher in Flemington, New Jersey. Her passion is showing her students that math makes sense.  She believes that a teacher’s voice carries when she has the chance to reflect and talk with other teachers about her craft. She has been a teacher for 19 years.