After seven years teaching Math and two years developing curriculum, I feel like I have heard the same statements countless times:

“I am just not a math person.”

“It’s okay to be bad at Math, some people aren’t Math people.”

“I’m a humanities teacher, I really don’t know Math. I can’t help students with their Math.”

I’ve worked in schools where every teacher is expected to be a reading teacher; we all learn reading strategies and take ownership over teaching reading – STEM Prep is one of these schools. This is a wonderful shared, collective mission. Of course reading is an essential life skill. But **when did we, as a society, decide it was okay to write Math off as a nonessential skill**, to accept that some people “just aren’t Math people”?

**Math people are not born; they are made.** While some people might be drawn toward numbers, we all have the capacity to see the beauty of Mathematics. However, we have not all had the pleasure of sitting in a Math classroom that makes Math come alive.

Yes, **I was one of those people who wasn’t a Math person**. When I entered the teaching profession, Math was the last subject I wanted to teach. It had been the hardest subject for me as a student. I was the student who watched my teacher teach multiplication in six different ways, but didn’t understand it until the sixth way. So, when I started teaching fifth grade, **I became a Math teacher by accident**, when my grade level decided to switch mid-year from being self-contained to being specialized content area teachers. I surprised myself by volunteering for Math; I just knew there was something missing in our Math curriculum, and I wanted to solve that puzzle.

It wasn’t easy. I made a lot of rookie mistakes in teaching skills and problem-solving. But, **I started to notice a few trends**:

- My students would ace a weekly quiz on the topics covered that week. On unit assessments, however, two or three weeks later, student mastery of standards dropped significantly. 30-40 percentage points in disparity.
- On cumulative assessments, students were misapplying strategies. For example, they would try to evaluate an expression with a given variable value using the solving equations strategy. They were not accurately identifying the mathematical concepts within a problem.
- When students did choose a correct problem-solving pathway, they often executed it incorrectly. They seemed to not remember all parts of a formula or equation, for example, or were not successfully interpreting meaning from the given information.

These three trends caused frustration and sometimes led to the statement, “I am just not a Math person.” **I was determined to change that mindset in my classroom.** What did I do?

**First, I changed my approach to unpacking a problem.**

1. **The goal is always for students to be able to recreate a process without the formula or rule, if they forget the rule.**

2. In order to be able to recreate the learning, students have to have a **flexible approach to problem solving**. I have to illustrate for them how a proportion is a form of an equation or how a geometry problem is actually an algebra problem.

Let’s consider a real-world example: converting one form of currency into another using an exchange rate. As an adult, I know there is a mathematical formula for this; people who identify as “Math people” seem to just know which number to divide by which number to make the conversion come out right. For me, as a very visual problem-solver, I always set up a proportion using units, applying a method I know will work because I understand what I am really doing when I convert currency, from a mathematical standpoint.

When I began to approach Math in this way, I realized that i**f my students understand what a concept is, how it works, and what it represents, they will be able to recreate either method for solving a problem on paper or in the real world**, OR solve the problem in pieces by applying one concept or understanding at a time. This is far more powerful than memorizing a strategy that they will forget by the next grade level.

I have always measured my success as a Math teacher by how excited my students get about being Math nerds, and when **I shifted my instruction from memorizing and applying a skill to empowering students to discover the skills themselves and be able to recreate the learning when I’m not there to help them**, I could see a marked shift in the enthusiasm my students have for Math. As teachers, leaders, and parents, it is our responsibility to give our children the gift of a love of Math.

And maybe, as we all embrace the beauty of Math together, we will become, and our students will know that **we are all Math People**.

*Tune in next week for Part 2: Conceptual Instruction in the Math Classroom!*

Anna Billa Rhea was born and raised in Wellesley, Massachusetts. After earning a BA in psychology with a focus on childhood language development from the University of Chicago, she spent a year in Spain on a Fulbright Grant, where she worked as a TA in a bilingual school in Madrid. Upon returning to the U.S., Anna moved to Nashville as part of the charter corps with Teach for America in Nashville, earned a M.Ed. in Education from Lipscomb University, and two years later came to STEM as the founding lead math teacher when the school opened its doors in 2011. After 7 years teaching middle school math (5 years in 5th grade, 2 years in 7th grade), Anna took on the role of Director of Curriculum and Assessment at STEM, which she currently holds. In her career at STEM as both a teacher and Director of Curriculum and Assessment, she has worked to develop a vision for high quality math instruction that focuses on conceptual understanding and authentic problem-solving.