Conquering Math Anxiety

Topics: STEM, Curriculum and Instruction, Teacher Effectiveness

Elementary teachers are generalists; they might have an area of expertise but feel insecure leading lessons in other subjects.

Teachers who struggled with math when they were students often tend to exhibit timidness and reluctance when teaching, regardless of grade level. This anxiety can project onto students and cause them to miss out on developing into secure mathematicians.

Teachers’ math insecurity might result from experience in a preparation program. Not all teachers-​in-training learn the same way. Education cycles through a variety of methods, and pre-service clinical experiences use math programs that might present topics and units differently than they were originally learned in high school.

Recognizing the Signs

When teachers are comfortable, they exude energy and present learning with enthusiasm. When they have math anxiety, however, they might visibly struggle with skills, stumble over steps, and miss key components of lessons.

Testing targets and student growth objectives add to teachers’ angst, and not just for those who struggle with math. In New Jersey, state-mandated student growth objectives for student performance can make teachers who are having difficulty dealing with high-level math skills feel as if testing could make or break their careers.

Most teachers can cope with K–3 math curricula easily, but they don’t anticipate what’s necessary in grades 4, 5, and 6. More complex learning takes place in high-level math courses later in school, and to be comfortable, teachers typically need to understand math concepts that are a year or more ahead of their students.

It creates an intense situation in the classroom, and students pick up on any tension that the teacher projects. Teachers pass anxiety on to students through body language, dialogue, and confidence—or lack thereof.

They might display tension when tested on the concepts, like when a student asks a question. Or they might have workarounds in math that work for them personally but don’t really translate to teaching. The key is to really understand the concepts as opposed to just lecturing.

Teach With the Times

We can no longer teach math with lectures alone. We need to stretch our imaginations to demonstrate that math is everywhere and make it applicable to students’ everyday lives. There’s no rule that older students and adults can’t use manipulatives, for example. Tactile techniques help learners of all ages; teachers and students should use manipulatives and visualizations such as pictures, graphs, and diagrams to solve problems and understand math concepts.

Teachers can also familiarize themselves with tech tools that help them and the students engage with learning. Our Algebra 1 class uses virtual reality to solve equations, and students now see the concepts as less complex, yet more interactive and competitive. Meet the students where they are; instruction has moved beyond just “paper and pencil.”

Teachers need practice in math, too, and thanks to the internet, they have more opportunities for independent study than ever before. I was once an anxious teacher who felt uncomfortable with math, and practice helped me perfect my craft. With technology, teachers can find step-by-step strategies to enhance their confidence and knowledge base and help students do the same.

Leading Through Anxiety

Principals play a pivotal role in breaking down math anxiety. One surefire way is to provide resources and training to help teachers face their fears. That goes beyond professional learning communities; provide ongoing, job-​embedded training with math coaches and other instructional leaders, if possible. Help staff help each other.

Peer and team collaboration builds confidence and ensures that there is a balance among colleagues. Teachers tend to lean on grade-level partners for support. Schedule regular meetings with teachers to check on their well-being and provide opportunities for them to discuss their thoughts and instructional challenges.

If you are an instructional leader who suffers from math anxiety, be transparent about it with staff. They will see that you are human, have flaws, and have overcome your fears to be a school leader. Discussion and training can serve as a foundation for the development of success strategies; ignoring the situation will only perpetuate it.

Don’t Add to Anxiety

The wrong approach to reducing math anxiety is to add to it. Teachers can’t thrive when they are reprimanded for fearing what they might think of as their “kryptonite” or come up short during evaluations. Browbeating won’t give you the results for which you’re looking. You’ll just make anxious teachers retreat even more into a cocoon.

The best approach is to support teachers and their anxieties. Provide constructive feedback on teacher performance. Create teams that include teachers who are confident in their instructional practices with those who are less secure. Foster a sense of community among teachers through professional learning communities. Collaboration allows teachers to share ideas and resources.

Pair anxious teachers with more proficient staff—someone who feels comfortable in math. Don’t look at the situation as “the teacher doesn’t know what they’re doing,” but instead as them needing someone with expertise to help. Tell them: “To get you to the next level with the curriculum, we’re going to team you up with someone you know.”

Our district focuses on providing ongoing, embedded training. We offer PLCs that provide teachers with an opportunity to discuss the anxieties they experience in the classroom. When we talk it through with other people, we get “aha!” moments: “Oh, it’s not as bad as I thought,” or “I know more than I thought.”

Plan together and discuss the process of learning. Teachers take performance evaluations personally and want to excel. When deficiencies are noted, they might feel defeated; offer suggestions on how to mitigate the situation. Track assessments, review data, discuss areas of growth, and build upon them. If additional training is needed, provide it.

Don’t allow math to be a monster under the bed that affects how teachers teach or how you lead instruction in classrooms. By addressing teachers’ math anxiety and promoting a positive school culture, principals can contribute to a healthier and more effective learning environment for teachers and students alike.

We are educators. We will take on the task with support, a positive attitude, and a love for kids.

Sherry Knight is director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Equity in the Burlington (New Jersey) City School District.