We hear students say, “I’m not good at math” or “Math isn’t my thing”, especially after receiving a bad test score. These comments are likely subtle signs they are afraid of math. If so, we need to pull the student aside and ask questions that might help shed light on what they are thinking. Are they afraid of failure, or of not understanding, or are they afraid that they are not smart enough?
Then you might offer, “Do you know what helps me when I’m afraid of failing,” or “Do you know what I do when I don’t understand something?” Sharing your own experiences can help.
Turn a scary condition into an opportunity
For instance, I like to explain how I turn scary situations into opportunities. If I have a mountain to climb and start with the premise that the climb will be too hard and I’m not capable of doing it, then I’ve already defeated myself before starting. Working out a math problem is much like working your way up the steep face of a mountain. Sometimes your direction reaches an impasse and you need to backtrack. It’s the same with math problems. The journey can either be fun or tortuous, depending on how you think about it. This reasoning has worked for me when talking with my daughters, and I’m sure it can work for others as well.
Humor helps. It relieves the tension and anxiety that grips us when facing a difficult situation. It could be a math problem or a life and death situation.
When I worked on the CBS Evening News program, West Point Cadets would come to the studio to watch the live recording.
“Why bring them here?” I asked their captain.
“So they can see how a crew acts under stress,” was the answer.
How did this news crew act? They were constantly laughing and telling jokes, especially the director.
I remember the joke-filled speech that President Obama gave at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner the night before the commando raid on bin Laden. It made perfect sense to me. The jokes allayed the anxiety he was feeling from the mission that was about to happen and for which he was responsible. The jokes helped him stay calm and continue to think clearly.
Each Elevated Math lesson has a cartoon introduction. These are not only to reveal the characters, engage the kids and introduce the subject. The cartoons are designed to make kids smile, if not laugh. When we are smiling, we are relaxed. And when we are relaxed, we are free of anxiety and are more open to learn.
Some teachers have recommended that we remove the humor within the lessons. We did take out some extraneous, distracting dialogue that had nothing to do with the instruction, but we refused to eliminate all the humor, and we rarely touched the cartoon intro. Humor is important to create a right learning environment – one that is relaxed and free of fear.
Fear vs excitement
Fear and excitement are two emotions that are quite similar to each other. Next time that you feel anxious about a task you need to do, whether it is to give a talk or perform in a show, teach a remote class or cook a dish you’ve never tried making for someone you need to impress, mentally nudge that anxiety you are feeling over to excitement. How cool to try something new! How much you’ll learn if you fail? Pat yourself on the back that you are trying something new and getting closer to a solution or that you even had the courage to try. The task will become easier and not as scary, and maybe even fun! AND, you will have another experience you can share with your students to help them overcome their fears.