Math ain't that hard, but establishing trust is

Author - KWAME ADAMS

Credit - This article was first published on the website, gse.harvard.edu


When I ­first began teaching math in 2014, after introductions I asked all students who loved math to raise their hands. They seemed confused by my question, so I repeated it. After a few chuckles, two out of 24 students raised their hands. When I asked who was not looking forward to math this year, the other 22 hands shot up immediately and laughter overcame the group. This would take place every year on the ­first day of class during the academic year, as well as during summer enrichment programs. One thing was clear — kids didn’t like math.


But what became evident in their reasoning was that it wasn’t about fractions, long division, or solving equations. Instead, it was about trust: students wanted to know their teacher would meet them where they were, would teach them multiple ways of fi­nding solutions, and would let them make mistakes when solving problems. Students wanted a classroom that reflected their culture and identity, rather than one that served to reinforce the oppressive racial hierarchy.

To build this kind of trust, educators must be more creative and flexible in the ways they present math to students and allow families into their classrooms to enhance student engagement. Here are a few ways to get started rethinking math instruction.


Math is more than numbers

Math is deeply connected to one’s sense of self since it requires vulnerability and the ability to make mistakes. But not all students arrive prepared for that challenge. As a result, math educators need to create classroom spaces that are both af­firming and motivating, while providing students with opportunities to collaborate and independently problem solve. Educators should focus not only on increasing critical thinking, ef­ficiency, and collaboration, but also on developing empathy, self-care, and critical consciousness. Establish the necessary trust by:

  • Investigating the relationships students had with their previous math teacher(s).

  • Engaging students in conversations about their interests, culture(s), and beliefs.

  • Steeping math in contexts they are familiar with to enable a deeper connection to the content personally and academically.

Engagement beyond phone calls

Yet creating strong relationships with both students and their families will take more than a few phone calls. Educators must create ways to communicate with families and get information in meaningful ways. Families that are seen as resources, act as such, which enables them to teach math to, or relearn math alongside their student, increasing engagement. A few ideas to increase family engagement and support relationship building include:

  • Surveys

  • Parent-facing learning materials like note sheets, lesson/content overviews, videos that support learning.

  • Scheduling parent meetings outside of the building.

  • Introducing local community-based supports like free tutoring at local libraries, local non-profi­t organizations and foundations that provide not only core academic enrichment but mentorship, community service projects, career exploration, and travel opportunities, to name a few.

  • Creating school-wide events around mathematics


Remember, families want to support their student in meaningful ways, but a lot of families do not remember the content, or the way in which they learned it is outdated. Providing parents with supports will empower them to engage in and support your classroom. Your investment in the entire household will not be in vain — you are rede­fining what math is and can be for the whole family.


Math beyond equations and expressions

Educators must move away from the dichotomy of ‘skill versus will’ and recognize the role our practices have on the ways in which students and their families see and feel the content. Recognizing that student performance is more than their capacity to complete a task, paired with their desire to complete said task and recognize how strong pedagogical practices can change how students view and interact with the content. Through strengthening pedagogical practices, students will feel empowered to not only gain the skills necessary to complete tasks but will have the desire to learn more as they see how their knowledge will help them strengthen themselves and their community.



Some mindsets that math educators could bene­fit from

  • Believing that math learned in class has influence beyond the schoolyard.

  • Possessing high expectations of all learners and being consistent in feedback processes, engaging students in conversations about their progress, and connecting their current progress to future aspirations and expectations in their desired industry/profession.

  • Adapting to the needs of all of your learners and allowing them to give you feedback not only on your teaching, but how you are supporting their individual needs. It is also important to be in constant communication with families so that you do not push a student too hard if they are in a vulnerable place.

  • Creating a collaborative culture in your classroom that enables students to recognize the power of working in community with others rather than competing against them.

This redefi­ned understanding of the content allows students to see their peers, families, and themselves more positively, improving how they collaborate and support each other’s learning. It is through this process of realizing themselves and the humanity in those around them, that students can see the ways in which math shapes their world.


This article originally appeared in the TeacherTribe Magazine December 2020 edition.