Every math teacher should understand What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math, writes Ben Orlin on Math with Bad Drawings.
As a math teacher, it’s easy to get frustrated with struggling students. They miss class. They procrastinate. When you take away their calculators, they moan like children who’ve lost their teddy bears. (Admittedly, a trauma.)
Even worse is what they don’t do. Ask questions. Take notes. Correct failing quizzes, even when promised that corrections will raise their scores. Don’t they care that they’re failing? Are they trying not to pass?
Because of his experience with mathematical failure, Orlin understands why his students don’t ask for help. “Math makes people feel stupid. It hurts to feel stupid.”
Orlin excelled as a math major at Yale –until he took topology in his senior year.
My failure began as most do: gradually, quietly. I took dutiful notes from my classmates’ lectures, but felt only a hazy half-comprehension. While I could parrot back key phrases, I felt a sense of vagueness, a slight disconnect – I knew I was missing things, but didn’t know quite what, and I clung to the idle hope that one good jolt might shake all the pieces into place.
But I didn’t seek out that jolt. In fact, I never asked for help. (Too scared of looking stupid.)
He copied his girlfriend’s homework. He procrastinated. He blamed others. He panicked. He exhibited “every symptom that I now see in my own students,” he writes. He managed to pass the course, but recalling the experience is still painful.