May 14, 2013

Written by R. Bruce N., from Lawrenceville, GA. It may come as a surprise that I hated math while in school. If I teach it today, then something must have happened. Here is my tale of conquering math anxiety... |

From day one, kids in school get drummed into them that teachers know it all. Students don't dare challenge the teacher and if they are falling behind it's implied that the fault lies within the student. (My story is on no way intended to bash the teaching profession. There are many, many excellent teachers out there.) But, teachers today are dealing with new challenges such as larger class sizes, condensed curriculum, etc., so less time is spent on assessing the individual's progress and understanding. This fact, combined with the tendency for kids to avoid questioning teachers on unclear concepts, leads to low self-confidence in the classroom and poor performance.

That was me: afraid to question. And, consequently, my grades suffered.

My teachers (in an expensive private school) taught to the top and ignored the bottom half of the class. Guess where I was? I always sat at the back of class, out of trouble and out of sight. Many, many times, I wanted to ask a question because I was confused. But, my heart would thunder and my stomach would turn at the thought of being ridiculed. Ridicule is a very powerful blunt instrument. So, questions didn't get asked and there were no answers. According to a series of studies from the American Educational Research Association, only 25% of students asked for help once more, after failing to get an answer to a question on the first attempt.

Math anxiety is very common and can be transferred to students from other classmates or even subconciously passed down from parents. Math anxiety manifests in the classroom because students run the risk of appearing vulnerable in front of their peers - something that we spend our entire adolescence trying to avoid. Class participation for a math class often requires students to rely on memorization, and one person's ability to recall information differs greatly from person to person- especially when mixed with the pressure to respond quickly and confidently in front of an audience. Another challenge for students is having the confidence to potentially answer a question incorrectly – appear foolish - or inquire further about a concept that is still unclear.

So in my case, pretty much ALL the basic concepts of math were never fully learned, all a vague blur, and I had nowhere to go but down. Math is like a ladder with a bunch of rungs. If the lower rungs are missing, then it's impossible to climb the ladder. The years rolled on and math became more and more difficult – more and more confusing – and when kids are confused they will do anything to relieve the discomfort. Truth be told – we all do that. As a result, kids will turn away, turn off, make excuses, engage in diversions, blame others, hate math, lie to themselves (and their parents) and sink! They give up hope for the future and resolve that they will never be a "math person."

I was lucky. My best buddy's dad was a man I admired greatly. Even at my lowest, he picked me up by the scruff of my neck and gave me a life lesson. All it takes is one person to change your outlook and restore confidence. Specifically, he taught me about belief systems. I believed I was stupid. As a self-fulfilling prophecy it worked beautifully. Everything was hard, nothing was easy, and what the teachers had told me over the years came to be true. I was dumb and the results proved it.

Now, if I teach math today, then something must have happened. Yes, it did. Mr. Brown taught me about my bent beliefs and he persuaded me that the best way to understand math was to try to explain it to other people. My immediate reaction was, “You must be insane! How can I do that?!” But, Mr. Brown insisted and even got me a job as a math teacher! Not just any job, but at a prestigious technical college named after John Napier, the guy who invented logarithms! Scared or not, Mr. Brown pushed me forward and I studied, and I studied, and I studied. Not to pass an exam, but to pass my future students unscathed. After spending the afternoons on intense individual study, I would go to school at night and teach math. Monday through Friday – every night. And, as I was teaching - I found I was really teaching myself.

I finished at my University with 1st Class Honors, and making 100's became routine - something I would have never thought possible. Once I abandoned my fear of asking questions and focused on learning concepts rather than relying on memorization, no exam question could rattle my cage and there was no more exam anxiety. I became comfortable confronting the things I was unclear on, and admitting openly when I needed help. One-on-one learning is a life-time opportunity - once students find comfort and are at ease in being open and honest about their shortcomings, they open the door to REAL learning.

After one year of this intense study and clarification in my mind, I discovered that, without my perceived pressure of a classroom full of peers waiting to judge my performance, all the basic concepts were actually very straightforward and made perfect sense.

Don't we ALL like stuff when we - are - good - at - it? I came to really enjoy math - because I - was - good - at - it.

Genius? Me!? No way!! I just did what had to be done. Period.

No more doubts, no more fear, and no more exam anxiety.

Lessons:- The faster you admit that you "don't get it" the sooner you WILL.
- It's ok to ask for help from others. ASK QUESTIONS!
- We can ALL be "Math People."
- Study time is a must. NO excuses.
- Believe you can – and you can! Telling yourself you NEVER will is setting yourself up for failure.

R. Bruce Neill has been a tutor on WyzAnt since February 2011, and provides online lessons. SEND AN EMAIL to R. Bruce today to inquire about availability. Since joining the site, he has taught over 900 hours and received 450 star ratings. His reviews are overwhelmingly positive and one students goes as far as to call him a "math genius!" He tutors in Math, Pre-Algebra, Algebra I and II, Geometry, Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus, Calculus, Microsoft products, Mac, Physics, SAT, ACT, Language Arts, Career Development and resumes - even Portuguese!

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