The following guest post is from Dr. Crystal Nelson. She is a music teacher at Camden Elementary and an RTI Interventionist for Benton County Schools. Dr. Nelson is also a colleague of mine with Hope Street Group where she works to amplify teachers’ voices in Tennessee.
For as long as I can remember, I have considered myself “bad” at math. As a student approaching college and deciding what I want to do with the rest of my life, I shied away from anything that might involve math, which severely limited my educational and career options. As an adult, my attitudes have changed and I have realized I am not bad at math. As an educator, I am concerned when I hear the, “I’m not good at math, I don’t like math, I’m not a math person” limiting mindset for students when they choose their careers. I want them to have every option available to them. There are enough limiting factors in the world; students should not have arbitrary limits set for themselves. Most of the recent bustle to prepare students to be “college and career ready” has been focused mostly on creating/implementing new standards and figuring out how to best teach to those standards. In the current culture of academic rigor, parents and educators alike must focus on making students believe that being bad or good at something is not set in stone and then help them to believe they can be good at math.
Changing students’ attitudes about math, or other subjects, involves changing the conversations we have with children and teens. Encourage them, and remind them “You might not be good at this now, but you can get better.” No one (hopefully) tells a beginning band student to just give it up, they won’t ever be good at their instrument. The band director tells the student what to do to get better, teaches them how to practice, and tells them to go practice! The same concept applies with math. Teachers and parents should help them know what to do to get better and has them practice.
Another important reminder for teachers, parents, and students to consider is that it’s okay for things to be hard. It’s okay to struggle. It is okay to fail abysmally at some tasks. It’s part of learning and growing. (However painful it is to watch your kiddos struggle!) Create a safe place for kids to fail so they will realize it’s not the end of the world and they can pick themselves up and try again. While it is not okay to fail a class, occasionally failing certain tasks allows kids to grow the skills they need for when things don’t work out in life. It gives kids security in knowing they can take academic and non-academic risks, set high goals for themselves, and accomplish things that are hard; and if they fail the task, nothing insurmountably bad will happen. They won’t be a huge disappointment to their parents, their grades will not suffer beyond repair and, while they may be disappointed, they can recover. (Although, a separate conversation about how schools assign grades and the high stakes attached to GPA should be had.) Parents and educators strive to structure students’ success, but children need to know that failure isn’t something to be afraid of. Allowing the fear of failure to limit oneself contributes to students’ overall success as they reach and accomplish more than they ever thought they could.
One other common statement that teachers and parents should guard against telling kids is, “It’s okay. I was bad at math too.” It perpetuates the excuse that being “bad” at something is acceptable and it destroys their growth mindset. Of course everyone has inherent strengths and weaknesses, but labeling someone as “being bad at math” is often times limiting. If you’re trying to empathize with a child’s struggle, please be mindful of how you phrase it.
The attitudes we have greatly influence how we approach tasks, how we respond to people, and how we act in situations. As teachers and parents, we want to cultivate attitudes in our children that will best set them up for success. Students should certainly not pursue careers for which they are not well suited. However, we should help students achieve their potential and break down any barriers and limitations they might set for themselves. Changing our attitudes and conversations is integral to the process.