Anxiety, Mathematics, and Words of Kindness

Last April 13th, I emailed a few friends to let them know I was starting a blog. “I’m a little afraid it will land with a dull thud against the hard pavement of the internet,” I wrote.

Two weeks later, I posted an essay called What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math, about my struggles with topology. It was stubbornly hard to write. I spat out 500 words of excuses and hedges (which I later deleted) before I could bring my fingers to type the truth.

Then the post started getting passed around. Thanks to a friend from college, it got picked up at Slate, where 100,000 people read it—and for the first time in 15 years of wishing, I felt like a writer.

Best of all (and how often do you get to say this about the internet?) were the comments. The “hard pavement” I’d feared turned out to be a warm and gentle crowd of people sharing their stories, wisdom, and vulnerability. Their collective eloquence dwarfed my original essay.

A year later, I’ve pulled out some of my favorite comments, and framed them with questions. Thanks, to all of you, for reading this blog and letting me share my stories and jokes and thoughts with you. Your warmth (and, when necessary, corrections!) have meant a lot to me. So here it is: mathematical anxiety, in your words.

The subject seemed like a smooth rock face, I didn’t even know the questions I should be asking. I still have the textbook, unread for all these years, like a totem: I really should try and learn that. – Paul Ramsey

“I got my first arithmetic assignment handed back to me with nothing but red marks on it, and the sense of humiliation and disappointment has been with me almost my entire life.” -Brandon

Like a little gumball leaning away from you.

“You can see it in their eyes – they really don’t understand. They will pretend that they get what you say to them, but you can tell they don’t. But it doesn’t matter, tomorrow is a different lesson and you will leave today’s lesson behind – until it comes back in an even less comprehensible form in the future.” –Laura Lynn Walsh

And why do they get so problematic when they can't solve an anxiety?

“When we teach math, we organize things for clarity. Unfortunately, this creates the illusion that there’s always an obvious, linear progression of concepts. It hides the messy truth of how the knowledge was actually acquired: through many twists and turns in a process of creative exploration. And, as you progress in mathematics, you have to bring more and more creativity to bear. This has many implications, but the most germane is that it’s very difficult to be creative when you’re in a state of panic.” – Brandon

“Grad seminar in logic: Dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, inability to look anyone in the eye. I’m your poster-boy. Took 14 yrs to get my Ph.D. Now emeritus professor of math & computer science.” –Gene Chase   “As a grad student, I used to feel stupid. Now as a professor, after having proved a few results of my own, I know I’m not stupid. If I don’t understand something, it’s only because I haven’t thought about it hard enough.” -Victoron

“It’s like navigating a huge landscape, but certain hills are higher than others. You can tell the height because it starts making you feel dumb…. It’s a large part of what makes research so difficult.” –tor_and_ext_are_torture_and_extortion

“Math is a very peculiar subject in that it builds on itself so linearly and so completely. Therefore there’s a sort of unstable equilibrium when it comes to understanding it. You can understand steps 1-100, but if you don’t get step 101, and you never put in the work to do so, then you won’t get steps 102-10,000 and you’ve effectively ‘fallen off the cliff.’ Then you start spiralling out of control.” –True Beauty of Math

“With math, because of its cumulative nature, you have to learn it in sequence. With a subject like art history, while there is clearly a progression of styles and a chronological nature to the historical events behind the art, it is entirely possible to have a meaningful discussion about art of a certain period without possessing a thorough understanding of what came before it.” – Peter T.

“Advice a teacher gave me: ‘You never understand Course N until you’ve taken Course N + 1.” – Gene Chase

“I used to play ping pong every week with a computer science professor. He was a very smart, no-nonsense guy. I told him about my tendency to ask a lot of questions, and how it was sometimes a bit much. What he told me has stuck with me till today: some of the smartest people I know ask some of the dumbest questions I’ve heard. Because they want to be absolutely, 100 percent sure that they get it.” –Nir Friedman

“I was labeled ‘gifted’ in second grade and was lucky enough to leave the grind of classes once a week to learn atomic theory, classical art, logic problem solving and other very cool things. I loved it all. Then I had 4 days in regular class. And I started experiencing the downside of the label.

I was struggling with long division and decimals, and I still (many more years than I care to admit) remember vividly, the teacher exclaiming in front of the whole class, ‘You have two professor parents and you’re in the gifted program, and you can’t get this? I don’t understand. Your sister never had these problems.’

I was done with math from then on – smote by that triple whammy.” – Carolyn

“What a difference it makes when a teacher breathes into our lives and compassionately understands. My son has a lovely math teacher and it’s doubtful he’ll ever be a star student in her class, she has cared and praised him for his efforts.” – Olive Shoot Institute

“We work hard in math, our class motto is ‘Work is synonymous with Opportunity.’ And though I strive, an edutopia I do not have. They rebel, they slump, and they watch the clock as it gets closer to lunch… but they also say great things about math and most importantly, they know not getting math doesn’t mean a person is less intelligent, in fact, if we are not hitting walls when engaged in math, walls that require pounding, diligence, sweat and tirades, then we are not doing math. And oh the celebrations when that wall comes tumbling down.” – Debra Taylor

I want to finish with a story from my sister, Jenna, a K-8 math coach and (despite her meager Twitter following) a far better teacher than I am:

Today, I watched a very capable student reduced to tears during my math lesson. She is ordinarily a student that catches onto the material quickly, and even requires an extra challenge.

Today, however, she looked confused, yet insisted she did not need any help.  “I hate this game! I hate math!” She continued to protest. “I don’t want to work with my partner! This game is boring! When are we done?”   She is six years old.

I pulled her into the hallway to discuss the content of [your blog post]. (How timely!) We talked about the symptoms, and about developing a growth mindset even when all we want to do is pretend we understand. I showed her the math content in a slightly different way — we were working on the inverse relationship between addition and subtraction — and her tense brows started to relax. “Oh, it’s like that?” She agreed to try again another day.

These feelings of failure can start early. I won’t pretend that my one conversation with this girl — a smiling, happy, bright 6-year-old girl — will prevent this from reoccurring. At least, after reading and giving this post some thought, I recognized the symptoms faster the usual. While it’s better to be proactive than reactive, some reactive treatment of math anxiety is better than nothing. Until we figure out a better way…


21 thoughts on “Anxiety, Mathematics, and Words of Kindness

  1. Thank you so much for publishing this! Today I’ve been struggling with an internal crisis about studying math – I worry about not having enough motivation or ability – and reading this was a great way to get my emotions in check.

    1. Hi Haley, I hope it helped! Good luck pushing through the crises – believe me, you’re not the only one who has those doubts.

  2. I often have to remember that *sometimes* what’s called anxiety is … simply not seeing a clear path, and not being comfortable with that. Scaffolding a bit to show the path… asking “what do you already know?”… etc… etc…
    Sometimes the anxiety is simply crippling. Thinking isn’t going to happen. The student is in a place where they’re sure whatever *they* say will be wrong. It always was before. This isn’t going to work anyway.
    Sometimes I can head it off … today I had a student who couldn’t tell me how many miles you’d drive in one hour if you were going 40 mph. I asked what 40 mph meant: it meant you were driving. I did manage to have her imagine being in the car… and we got there… but when it was just numbers… they didn’t mean a thing.

    1. Yeah, it’s amazing how those little missing blocks at the bottom of the tower can undermine all further progress. Good catch realizing that the student didn’t realize what “40 mph” meant – that would’ve been easy to overlook.

  3. Hi Anne, I will definitely share this with my class (when the hols are over)! I will let you know how they react. I think it will do some of them good to understand that even adults can suffer from Math fear. 🙂

  4. I went back and read the original essay. It is really very keenly self observant.
    Many of your posts are thought provoking. Keep up the bad drawings.

  5. I love the article. I am wondering if your sister has stopped tweeting. One of my biggest job related tasks is coaching, especially in my specialty, and I would love to converse with like minds. Wishing all the best and congrats on feeling like a “writer,” I would say you have accomplished a lot more than that with your wonderful blog. (:

    1. Yeah, she doesn’t tweet much. Busy with work, I guess, but I’ll get on her case. 😉

      And thanks for reading! I’m really happy with how things have gone here, and I always love reading the comments (even when I’m too irresponsible to respond for 2+ weeks.)

  6. Your blog is only a year old? It’s wonderful! I thought it had been around for much longer. Keep up the great work!

  7. I like your take on anxiety. I believe that a lot of people get anxious about something they care about because they want to do well in it, which brings me to the conclusion that anxiety can actually help be better at what you do. When you get anxious it means you have are conscious that you have to perform well thus motivating you to work hard and try to do your best, I know anxiety is so dreadful because I’m also dealing with it but once you learn how to manage it you can actually use it as a very powerful weapon.

    – Abby

  8. where has this blog been my whole (teaching and learning) life? Middle school math teacher here. This articulates the things I’m starting to see in my 8th graders…

  9. I am LOVING exploring this blog. Thinking back on all of those years of school… I admit, I loved math and I was good at it, or so I thought. But reading all of these posts is causing me to question, did I actually understand what I was learning? Was I just good at memorization? How much have I been influenced by the testing culture of education? I had some phenomenal teachers and experienced a lot of grace from them. But I also remember breakdowns and tears from AP calc in high school and how it really does feel like a reflection of your own ability, your worth… Thanks for your insight and your genuine desire to be a good teacher.

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