A simple headline in the Sunday newspaper caught my eye this morning. The headline states: “Girls may learn math anxiety from teachers”. Having struggled with math anxiety for most of my life and having seen many other women with similar struggles, I decided to dig a bit deeper into this study. Out of my frustration in high school math class I can remember foolishly thinking “I’ll never use this in my real life!” This is a contemporary problem as many girls see math as irrelevant to everyday problem solving. This current research was funded by the National Science foundation and completed by researchers from the University of Chicago. The researchers assessed the level of math anxiety in first and second grade teachers and looked at the relationship of math achievement and gender stereotypes. Ah gender stereotypes!
Being in my mid-fifties now, I can remember my junior high Home Economics teacher telling my all-girl class that most of us wouldn’t need much math beyond calculating the size of a roast needed for our husband’s work dinner parties. We wouldn’t be scientists or NASA mathematicians. We might need to know how to budget our husband’s salary but that wouldn’t demand the higher level math courses. It was fine if we didn’t do well or didn’t like our math classes. We also knew that girls who were smart in math were not liked by boys. We were told by mothers, teachers, books and movies that it was more important for us to know other feminine topics such as cooking and how to apply make-up and to leave the math to the boys. Of course this was just as the rise of feminism was beginning to rattle these limiting ideas and roles.
On the one hand we received liberal doses of the old stereotypes and on the other we were told we could have anything that men did. Women have put many cracks in the glass ceiling through the past several decades but this struggle with math doesn’t seem to be one of those yet. This current research does much to explain that math anxiety is the gift that keeps on giving generation after generation. This is not because girls and women are incapable but because we are passing on our own anxiety even as we teach the basic skills.
This study looked at 17 female teachers (90% of elementary school teachers are female). At the beginning of the school year the student’s math anxiety was unrelated to how the teacher felt about math. It was found that the more anxious the teacher was about math the lower the scores for the girls while boy’s scores were unaffected. In further testing, girls who accepted the idea that boys were naturally better at math continued to see declining math scores. This causes me to look at the reality that just as I passed on other characteristics to my daughter, I may have passed on my math anxiety to her as well.
As a teacher I have been open about my math anxiety hoping to inform my female students that they are not alone with that anxiety and that they can still be successful in spite of it. This study gives me pause that my sharing may have contributed more to increasing the problem not diminishing it. Role modeling appears to be a mixed blessing in this instance. One of the important conclusions from this study is the math anxiety can be decreased through increasing math requirements for elementary school teachers. I prefer to rephrase this conclusion to: the better the math training, the higher the female teacher’s math self-efficacy. Higher math self-efficacy in female math teachers leads to higher math scores and higher math self-efficacy for the girls. Self-efficacy in math (as in most areas of life!) has lasting benefits.
Perhaps a broader application for all of us who are in positions to influence the next generation of girls and young women is to take these conclusions very seriously and polish up our math skills and our attitudes about our math abilities. Instead of confessing to our math anxiety and accepting it, we need to work to overcome it. We want both girls and boys to achieve their full academic potential and we can achieve this by demonstrating how useful and empowering math knowledge can be.
Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and doctoral student.