Finding the magic in math

A mathematics teacher remembers her own teacher

Pooja Keshavan Singh

A happy mathematics class begins with a happy mathematics teacher. There is plenty of research on how teachers’ personalities influence students’ beliefs and attitudes about learning the subject (Domino, 2007 and McLeod, 1994). Beliefs and attitudes can also be termed as long-term dispositions about self and the subject. This article is about how a teacher brought me back from a point of ‘no return’ when I wanted to leave mathematics after senior secondary school to being a mathematics teacher educator today. It has been 20 years to the day but the story needs to be told. Why? You shall soon realize.

Mathematics is the only subject I ever struggled with during school. I could not make sense of the arbitrary rules and procedures. Word problems were the bane of my life and those ‘silly mistakes’ in the mathematics exams cost me a lot of marks and scolding at home. I had slowly developed a sense of helplessness towards the situation. Tutors were around but their help managed to get me 60 to 65 percent. I still lived with the feelings of inadequacy towards mathematics and all my efforts went into ‘managing the exam’.

During class X a lot of future plans rested on how well one scored in the mathematics exam and I was sent to a very experienced mathematics teacher by my parents, who I expected to be strict, grouchy, and boring. As I mentioned the link previously, I extrapolated my feelings about the subject to my expectation from her and vice versa. She, however, was totally different. Her calm and patient persona made me comfortable to talk to her and the first words she spoke to me were, “We begin with the Basic Proportionality theorem, 90 – 100 percent children in our country are weak in geometry.” In the first session itself I realized I had found what I was looking for — an unassuming, unpretentious teacher who was not concerned with my past scores but was willing to believe in future possibilities.

Meanwhile, my father was called to my school to be informed that I have been diagnosed with an IQ of 70 points and that I am a ‘slow learner’. The school feared that due to my past record and the IQ score I might spoil their annual result. My father told the school principal, “Don’t worry about the result, I’ll make something of her…” Back home he told me to forget everything and focus on my studies. So now, it was me, mathematics, and aunty (the tutor). Aunty and my mother knew nothing about the school incident and I cared two pins as I had to deal with maths!

Aunty had great communication skills; she explained concepts like they were living in the same room where we sat every time. They came ‘alive’ just by the gesturing of hands and her explanations. I had started visualizing the concepts and relationships between them. Slowly I could start verbalizing my ideas. She emphasized writing alongside speaking and then repeated writing. I started filling up pages after pages every day after my sessions with her. I learnt a number of best practices from her like writing the ‘given’, ‘to find’ and formulas for every question. This helped find a bridge between the known and the unknown thus helping me develop skills of problem solving. She taught me how to write steps for understanding and readability, how to label figures, formats to answer, interpreting answers and validating the results. She stressed that I remember all formulas (even in my sleep!), do all the rough work on the same page margins instead of at the back of the notebook, draw figures in questions even if there are no marks for it, practice questions in geometry with different labels and different orientations and most importantly verify the answers. She cautioned me on ‘slippery turf’ where most children make mistakes and the ‘catch points’ in different questions.

The systematic approach helped me understand the structure of the discipline and appreciate it. The logicality of ideas, in fact, liberated me; the precision of arguments fascinated me. I could now understand the reasons for branching off at various points of a problem. In other words I could embrace mathematics in my arms and kiss it!

Over the year I saw that there was another side to her personality. She told me how she learnt mathematics as a child in school in a remote village of Kerala and how she became a mathematics teacher. She also mentioned one day that “I am addicted to teaching mathematics, I can’t digest food on the day I don’t teach”. This seems funny right now, but for a child struggling with mathematics, it felt WOW!

No wonder I scored well in mathematics in class X and XII. I chose to major and master in mathematics from one of the top universities in the country. I started teaching mathematics after a B.Ed degree and practiced with my students what I had learnt from Aunty. As a school teacher I was disturbed by the fact that mathematics is the most scary subject for many students and it was clearly because of the uninspired mathematics teachers who have no idea about teaching it creatively. I felt that if mathematics has to be made cognitively accessible to more children we need to work with the teachers and so
I studied further to become a teacher educator.

Every year, I begin the session by listening to every pre-service teacher’s ‘math story’ and focus on those students who have had negative experiences in school with mathematics. We read theories of mathematics teaching and learning through the year and also explore innovative ways to teach the subject, for instance using board games, the playground, physical education, stories, theatre, cooking, carpentry, etc. Many of the students by the end of the year say, “Wish we were taught mathematics like this…maths could be so much fun.” I believe that even though we cannot erase the past, we can surely work to create a happy future for many young learners. It is fulfilling to set future teachers free from the shackles of inability and deficiency to being independent and resourceful.

When I look back, I feel the one most important thing that Aunty did was to accept me as I was. She did not judge me or find fault with me, she only trusted my potential and that is what every teacher needs to do.

References

  1. Domino, J. (2007). Teachers’ Influences on Students’ Attitudes Towards Mathematics. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education. Vol. 26(1) 32-54.
  2. McLeod, D. B. (1994). Research on affect and mathematics learning in the JRME: 1970 to present. Journal of Research in Mathematics Education, 25, 637-647.

The author has been a mathematics teacher and teacher educator for many years and is currently pursuing PhD from the University of Delhi. She can be reached at [email protected]com.

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