Not Adding Up

22 Aug

Dear Math teacher,

My child started your class today. Although really, I could have written this last year. Because the first-day speech seems to be standard issue. “This class is hard. You might not be ready to be in here. You should drop it now if you have any doubts, and get back into regular math.”

Last year, those words echoed for my child all year. Hovered over every homework assignment. Hung in the air in the classroom, a cloud so intimidating that she wouldn’t ask a question, fearing she might come across as “not smart enough” for your class.

They hummed during every test like a Greek chorus.”You aren’t good enough for the smart-kid class.”

The thing is, she is. Or, she was, until the smothering smoke of self-doubt set in.

But she got through the year, tears and all. Because even when she didn’t believe it, even when you made her think differently? She was capable. She belonged in advanced math.

I hoped, with a new year, we could start fresh.

Instead, the same speech came out. “This class is hard. Drop it now if you have any doubts.” Tonight, she fell asleep in tears, sure she would never get it.

The first day of school, and she already feels defeated.

Listen, I get it. You want the students to know the honors classes are tough. You have one more year to ready them for high school. Toughen them up.

But — and I say this not just as a mom but as a fellow educator — that speech needs to go. Telling kids, “If you have any doubt, quit now,” is an absolutely ridiculous life lesson.

Of course, you should let them know it’s going to be tough, that they will need to do the work and put forth their best effort. But remind them too that they are capable, they are in your class for a reason. Remind them they’ve proven they are up for the challenge. Instead of puffing up Algebra into some kind of fire-breathing mythical dragon, hand them a sword and help them cut it down to size.

When you ask a classroom, “have I scared you yet?” It is not a point of pride for your students to answer “yes.” Our role as teachers is not to be the angry troll guarding the bridge. We are bridge builders. If a child really isn’t ready, assessments will make that clear. But sowing seeds of self-doubt is never going to reap anything but a harvest of students afraid to try.

So please, retire the speech. If it’s in some middle-school advanced math teacher manual somewhere, tear out the page already. If you can teach the quadratic formula, you’re definitely smart enough to come up with a new first-day speech.

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9 Responses to “Not Adding Up”

  1. Colleen August 23, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    AMEN! And, please tell me you emailed a copy to her teacher and administrators too.

    • Kathy Gaalaas August 29, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

      AGREED! If you had named the teacher in this post, I would have tracked him or her down and CALLED the school itself!! I had this happen with a 6th grade math teacher. I did ask questions and was belittled at her desk. She was MEAN, angry and I didn’t understand why she was teaching. I really wanted to learn, but ended up begging my mom to put me in “regular” math.. bad decision, but my mom couldn’t deal with my tears anymore. These teachers need to GO and believe me.. Karma’s a bitch!!!

  2. btschulze August 23, 2011 at 8:16 am #

    I agree with Colleen. Please email the school with this. My son is facing the same challenge this year and I pray he doesn’t hear the same speech you mentioned.

  3. lettergirl August 23, 2011 at 8:36 am #

    I have a conference requested with the teacher. I do understand the mindset of “tough on the first day to establish authority,” and recognize the incredible discipline challenges in secondary school that make that stance feel necessary sometimes. I suspect this teacher loves her subject and her students, and would be saddened by the unintended effect of her words. I hope that’s the case.

    • Kathy Gaalaas August 29, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

      You are way too nice. Being tough on the first day does NOT mean “have I scared you yet” as you mentioned. I think my daughter’s teachers are going to hate me. If I ever hear this is happening, believe me, I’ll be “conferencing” with these teachers until they get a clue and get a soul.. or leave.

  4. bendlec August 23, 2011 at 9:52 am #

    Amen! I teach Adult Basic Ed. There are SO many capable people in my class who dropped out because they were told they wouldn’t make it. My job? To help them find the courage and determination to do what I know they CAN do! Once I help them see their abilities, they fly onwards and upwards.

    We have teachers here who delight in belittling, and to me it’s a crime. Why shoot the wounded? Help them to grow and become what they are meant to be, and the world will be a better place.

    Here’s to a new year!

    • lettergirl August 23, 2011 at 9:55 am #

      bendlec, thank you so much for the work you do. You are changing the trajectory of people’s lives, and I hope you remember that on tough days.

  5. Nicole August 23, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    While a speech like that can motivate some kids to work hard in an “I’ll show you” kind of way, it is hurtful to kids who are insecure about so much. Your kids are lucky to have a mom who will stand up for them. I hope your daughter’s classmates appreciate that. But most of all, I hope that teacher listens before she crushes the hopes of other future math geniuses.

  6. J. Welsh September 13, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    Having lived through basically the same experience myself, I was very glad to read this post and see you taking action. Though my self-doubts in math began before I was placed in an advanced math class in 6th grade, nothing was done to alleviate that anxiety. I clammed up, never asked questions, was very hesitant and had a distaste for math until after college. It left me in tears on a regular basis, so I’m glad you’re being the wonderful person you are and not only addressing this issue, but finding a way to resolve it.

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