Yesterday I went to the dentist and met my new dental hygienist. With my mouth open for nearly 40 minutes, you wouldn’t think we got much of a conversation in. After asking how my day had been and me explaining it had been great since I’m a teacher on school holidays, we got down to talking about which school and what I teach. And then the conversation went something like this:

Hygienist: “Wow! I always think maths teachers must be super smart. I’m terrible at maths and not very smart.”

Me: Using facial expression as best I can to indicate that I highly doubt she’s not very smart. Difficult with protective glasses and hands in my mouth.

Hygienist: “I think you’re either born good at maths or you’re not. There’s not much you can do about it. My friend didn’t complete school but she can work out how much we each owe at dinner just like that.”

Me: I do a big frown and start shaking my head and I get an opportunity to respond. “I’d have to disagree. Otherwise my job’s a bit useless if that’s true.”

Hygienist: “Oh, I’m sorry, you’re right, that’s a bit rude of me to say.”

Me: “No, not at all, everyone thinks that and says that, and it’s one of the biggest barriers to helping people learn maths.”

Then the teeth scraping continued.

And it got me thinking. In a situation like this when there’s barely a chance to converse, the first thing that gets mentioned when talking about maths is that it’s an inherent ability that can’t be learned.

Now the hygienist’s kids, all three of them, go to Perth Modern School. This is the only academic select government school in Perth. This means her kids are well above average in academic ability, and this would have to include maths as well. She told me her kids aren’t very good at maths. I didn’t get much of a chance to respond, except to say that this might only be true relative to their cohort, not to the average ability of kids their age.

This is the battle I’m up against each day. By this stage of the year I’ve changed the minds of most of the younger kids in my classes (Year 7s and 8s). It’s harder to change the minds of the older kids with only three terms of teaching, they’ve already often developed a belief that they’re not great at maths, even when they’re in an extension maths class.

I’m glad I have a lot of parents who are keen to make sure that their daughter doesn’t lose her confidence with maths and adopt an “I’m-just-no-good-at-it” attitude. A few of them have taken my advice to get their daughter a tutor, not so much for extra lessons in maths, but more as a personal cheer squad who can help boost their self-esteem. I’ve been tutoring since I left school, and most of what I do, especially with girls, is exactly that. I help them believe in themselves and their mathematical ability. I’ve never had one student not improve significantly with this approach.

It’s so important to help younger kids realise that maths is something they can definitely do. The hygienist’s normal comment slips out of the mouths of adults all too often, and kids pick up this belief and take it on board as truth. Young kids don’t know if something is hard unless you tell them it is. They trust that adults will only give them something they are capable of doing.

In my classes I don’t “teach to the middle”. I don’t really believe that there’s any such thing. I teach to where I want the middle to be. It just so happens that where I want it to be is always significantly higher than the so-called average. And every time, the kids rise to my expectations.


What messages and expectations are your kids learning from you?

Photo credit: Alkelda / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND