In July, in a packed classroom in downtown Chicago, a group composed mostly of early elementary teachers and child care workers read a story about “Wendi,” a fictional preschool teacher who loves reading but struggles in math.
Even though Wendi was drawn to early education, where “math was so easy,” she still felt unsure of her skills. In the story, she decided to skip math concepts, leaving them for the teachers her students would have next year.
Across the room, people nodded their heads as they listened.
“I am Wendi. Wendi is me,” said Ivory McCormick, a kindergarten teacher from Atlanta. Several other educators in the classroom identified with Wendi, and that was the point. Decades of research shows math anxiety is a common problem for adults, and surveys show it particularly affects women, who make up nearly 90% of elementary teachers in the United States.
Put simply, a lot of elementary school educators hate the prospect of teaching math, even when the concepts are beginner-level.
At the Erikson Institute, a child-development-focused graduate school in Chicago, this annual summer math conference is a chance for teachers to assuage their anxiety. Participants explore how young children learn math and strategize activities they can do in the classroom.
Because math competencies build on each other, it’s critical that students receive a solid foundation in the subject, experts say. The U.S. has long trailed many other developed countries in terms of student math performance, and scores tanked during the pandemic. Educators say helping teachers in the early grades gain confidence in math could be one key to unlocking America’s post-pandemic math recovery.
“If you look at how a child is doing with math when they enter kindergarten, that’s the best way to predict how they’re going to be doing with math later, all the way up through eighth grade,” said Jennifer McCray, a research professor at Erikson.
When McCormick started teaching preschool in Atlanta five years ago, she felt anxious about teaching a subject she didn’t feel confident in. “Math was something I always had to work really hard at, and it seemed like I never really got that much better at it,” she said.
Teachers who doubt their math ability often worry they will transfer their math aversion onto impressionable students, educators say.
Math specialists say it is a pervasive issue in elementary classrooms, where educators are typically expected to teach every subject. It often leads to teachers spending less classroom time on math.
“I have some kids who say, ‘Nan, we haven’t done math for two weeks,’” said Nan McCormack, a retired teacher and math specialist who tutors young students online from her home in Chicago. “It’s one of those subjects that teachers like to avoid and come up with an excuse, and think, if they don’t get it now, they’ll get it next year.”
At the Erikson Institute’s summer conference, teachers gained practice on concepts they’d use in their classrooms. They built large, 10-sided shapes out of colorful blocks, for example. The exercises benefited their own math skills, too.
“There’s a misbelief that in order to teach early childhood math, you don’t really need to know math well,” Lauren Solarski, a consultant and coach with the Early Math Collaborative at Erikson, told the group of educators.
That doesn’t necessarily mean early childhood teachers need to be experts in advanced geometry or algebra, said Lisa Ginet, director of program design and operations at Erikson. But it does mean they need to know how different lessons that may not seem to be related to math are connected to mathematical thinking and to topics students will learn as they get older.
It isn’t a coincidence that a lot of early elementary teachers lack confidence in their own math abilities, McCray said. Sometimes, that’s why they go into early education in the first place.
“There’s this idea that you can probably do the least harm there,” McCray said.
Avoiding high-level math courses was part of why Stacey Stevens switched her major to early childhood education in college. After she became a preschool teacher in Kentucky, she did a yearlong professional development session on math. Finally, she started to feel she truly understood how to teach it.
“I think that’s what made me most passionate about it in preschool — I didn’t want kids to grow up having the same struggles as me,” said Stevens, who now works for the Kentucky Department of Education as the director of an early childhood regional training center. “I wanted them to understand that four triangles make a square: to actually see it and do it and not just be told that a triangle is a fourth of a square.”
Before teachers step into classrooms, colleges also need to better prepare them to teach math, said Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.
On average, most undergraduate and graduate teacher preparation programs do not spend as much time on elementary math content as NCTQ believes is necessary, according to the organization’s 2022 analysis of these programs. The council’s recommendations are based on studies that show teachers’ math coursework in college is linked to student achievement.
“If we prepared them better, they would be stronger at both their math content knowledge as well as their ability to teach math, and this would reduce their anxiety and improve student outcomes,” Peske said.
McCormick, the kindergarten teacher from Atlanta, moved up this year to teaching first grade. She credits her school’s decision to hire a math specialist last year with helping change how she feels about teaching the subject.
“It was really hard in the beginning for me to find a connection to it — I was kind of just doing it because it was part of my job,” McCormick said. “But this past year, I have kind of revamped my thoughts about what math can be and the ways that we teach it in order to make kids want to learn about it and be enthusiastic about it. Because the way we present it to them holds so much more weight than I think I ever realized.”
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