Social and Emotional Factors in the Math Classroom (a few initial notes)

I’m trying this thing where I write a quick blog post after an energizing conversation. Wish me luck!

This year at open school night, I gave my students’ parents an idea about who I was and where I came from, on the logic that my professional narrative informs many of my choices in designing my classroom. Rather than providing them with a list of strategies and tools I’m using, I figured I could just tell them why I’m doing what I’m doing, in story form, giving them a better sense of the class, and of me. That seems the most you can get out of open school night: an answer to the question, “who is this person teaching my child math?” So I thought I’d answer it directly.

One of the things I shared with the parents that I had not shared before was my work in chaplaincy and pastoral care. It felt important to say, but it’s so random that I couldn’t leave it as it was — I made a joke out of it. It went something like this:

“When I tell people about the jobs I’ve had, they usually stop me here and say, how did someone who worked as a chaplain go and become a high school math teacher? Then they think for a second and say, actually, I could have used a chaplain in high school math!”

Har. As Open School Night jokes go, it’s not the worst, and I like to think it gets points for uniqueness. Of course, I’m not so sure that I’ve ever actually had this exchange, but people found it funny, so it tells me there’s a seed of truth there.

As I reflect on it, I think there’s more than a seed of truth — and now I have a bit of misgivings about light of it. But it brings an important point to the fore, which if I had to put in one sentence, would be:

The emotional and social life of a math classroom is fundamental to sound progressive pedagogy.

How so? Well, if you found my joke remotely funny, you know the first point.

Math work is frustrating for students.

Math is hard, and everyone seems to know it, because people can talk about not really understanding math after sixth grade and they will get a round of affirmation at a cocktail party. Meanwhile, if you say, “I stopped learning how to read in sixth grade,” in the same context, the reaction is very different. So there’s good reason to believe that the idea that math work is hard for students has some cultural capital. As a teacher, I suppose you should be ready to deal with the fact that your students will be frustrated, even if you tell them how to do things very clearly.

Let me push this is a bit further.

Math work should be frustrating for students.

Or at least, good math work should be frustrating, for a time. The productive struggle is a necessity for learning math, because that’s what it takes to build one’s own relationship to the mathematics. That is not easy work, and cannot be easy work, because it requires creativity and discipline and risk-taking.

Now a teacher shouldn’t seek to create unnecessary frustration for students — in a well-designed space for math, the frustration will come naturally. But a teacher must be able, not just to “deal with” the students frustration, but to go further — to tolerate their students’ frustration, giving the students space to work out their own understanding. If the teacher cannot tolerate their students’ frustration, and instead gives into it because of their own anxiety about letting young people be frustrated, the student loses an opportunity to create an authentic connection with the math. There are times when it’s appropriate to alleviate a students’ stress around not yet understanding math, but I believe these are far more rare than most people expect.

So let me bring that together into a third point where the emotional life of the math class is essential:

Teaching math requires a teacher to tolerate their own anxiety about student frustration.

Ultimately, we all became math teachers because we wanted to help young people with math, on some level. If that is part of the original impulse, it’s not surprising that we would be highly uncomfortable with resisting the urge to help. But we can see that the desire to give answers or help anxious students can sometimes handicap students from developing their own capacity to tolerate their frustration and find a way to work through it.

“Less helpful,” is the subtitle to Dan Meyer’s blog. If we overhelp, students will be underserved. If students get used to waiting for a teacher or another authority to swoop in and make their math difficulties go away, they become less able to navigate actual real-world situations where not all the information is provided, where conjectures and estimations are necessary, where the constraints are unclear, or where there are many possible answers that need to be adjudicated and argued depending on the question as hand.

Students need to experience the difficulty of this, which is an emotional task, and teachers need to let students experience the difficulty of this, which is also an emotional task.

And a social one.

Students and teachers need to be able to relate to one another about the frustration of math work.

What needs to be communicated, often through actions more than words, is not just that the teacher expects and accepts and tolerates the students’ frustrations (and anxiety, let’s say it), but further — that the teacher believes the student can work through that frustration and learn something. This pushes the emotional work into a kind of social work. School is about relationships, I saw once. There has to be a level of trust established. The only way a teacher could possibly tolerate a student’s repeated frustration and anxiety is if they trust the student can deal with it productively, and then they have to be able to relate this to the student, over and over again.

And it’s not just about saying it, it’s about meaning it. This is harder than it seems, because it requires the teacher to trust that they themselves could tolerate frustration and anxiety and learn math in this way. I had several beloved but not particularly progressive math teachers when I was growing up. When I think of my formative experience as a math learner, it was when I took on agency for my math learning in college, after I recognized I couldn’t coast by with formulas and shortcuts anymore and had to really study to get at the understanding. That experience of coming-to-agency (which, it so happens, I also mentioned in my Open School Night presentation) is the foundation for my own progressive practice — and even still, I often have a hard time trusting that what I say I believe is really true: that knowledge comes from making sense of one’s own creative experience, and that learning cultivates liberation.

I get the sense, and I think you’ll agree with me, that math seems to be some kind of haven for people who don’t want to think or talk about their feelings, or maybe even don’t want to have much to do with the feelings of others. That’s a stereotype, but it seems to dictate what many people expect of math. However, math brings up lots of feelings, and as teachers we have to be ready to name them and navigate them, and help students hold them without us rushing to fix them. Students need to survive that frustration to discover their own capacities and insights, and we need to protect the space for them to do just that, minding their progress and trusting that, on the most basic level, they already possess what they need and their work is in bringing it to fruition. On good days, I can see that flowering of the free exchange of knowledge in my classes, or rather, I can feel it.

There’s something in Gospel of Thomas about this: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” In a theological mode, that captures precisely what I need to create, and protect against, for my math students.

That’s why it’s good for a chaplain to be a math teacher. No joke.

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