Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Female Teachers and Math Anxiety

This is NOT good news.
Girls have long embraced the stereotype that they're not supposed to be good at math. It seems they may be getting the idea from a surprising source -- their female elementary school teachers.

First- and second-graders whose teachers were anxious about mathematics were more likely to believe that boys are hard-wired for math and that girls are better at reading, a new study has found. What's more, the girls who bought into that notion scored significantly lower on math tests than their peers who didn't.

You can read more at the Los Angeles Times and Business Week.

All the more reason to prepare elementary teachers who are highly confident in their ability to know, do, and teach math.


  1. Reminds me of that Barbie "Math is hard" fiasco.

  2. Pygmalion in the classroom -

  3. And for moms to loudly proclaim and celebrate their math prowess!

  4. As someone who has taught both elementary and secondary, I can assure you that this is true--shockingly so. From the talk I've heard over the years, many elementary teachers actually go into elementary teaching, especially the primary grades, partly in order to avoid math--even at the 4th-6th grade levels. What this really goes back to is the question: how is math being taught in the first place that intimidates and confuses so many students, something they then carry throughout their lives (some of them becoming teachers)? As a teacher trainer for the past four years, it was an ongoing concern for me. (I'm happy to be working with kids again!)

  5. Tricia,

    I just wrote a long comment—but it got lost in the ether. I’ll try again.

    Either the Los Angeles Times or Business Week needs to get its facts straight. One article says “seven” teachers were involved in the study; the other article says “seventeen” were. Either way, it’s a pretty small research sample. In addition, the study was conducted in one school district. I don’t think there was a control group either.

    I’ll admit that I’m a skeptic. The findings of the study may well be correct. I’d like to read more research studies on the same subject before I’m convinced though.



    I was an elementary teacher for more than thirty years. I can’t recall ever meeting a colleague who chose to become an elementary teacher in order to avoid math. At the elementary level, educators are usually required to teach ALL subjects. In middle and secondary schools, teachers usually teach in specific disciplines. Those who don’t like or feel uncomfortable with math don’t teach it. Why would prospective young educators who dislike math think the elementary level is the best place for them? I don’t get it.

  6. Hi Elaine,
    You're right about the discrepancy. It was 17 teachers. This is a small sample size (you really can't generalize anything unless you have a minimum N of 30), but I still find it worrisome. In my class this semester a number of preservice teachers are focused on teaching early elementary grades because they are concerned about their ability to teach the math in the grade 3-5 curriculum. These are smart folks, so my gut tells me there is something to this research.

    I don't think people choose to teach elementary school because they're afraid of math, but I do think their confidence in their own abilities often serves as a strong motivator for grade level preference.

  7. Tricia,

    My gut tells me it's probably the math series that they had when they were in school that made them dislike math so much.

    My last year in an elementary classroom I had to use a new series adopted by our school district that was language-based and, I thought, difficult and confusing for young children. We teachers were expected to introduce a new concept nearly every day. Kids had no time to master anything. I felt like I was on a treadmill teaching math that year.

    It was a series much like the one my daughter had in middle school--which, IMHO, made math seem more difficult than it really is. I often had to sit with her and show her simpler ways of doing things like ratio problems. Neither she nor I could figure out some of the confusing examples provided in the books.

  8. Elaine--Oh, it's not the only factor, of course. But I've been in groups of teachers when the topic of math phobia came up and more than one person commented "jokingly" that that's why they had chosen to teach in the primary grades. It's happened more than once over the years. Anecdotal evidence, but it did catch my attention, and then this article brought those remarks to mind.

    I feel very strongly that math should be taught differently, starting with many of the textbooks, as you mentioned. (We could spend days talking about these issues, I know!) --Kate

  9. Hmm. Interesting. Although I agree that 17 teachers from one district is hardly a proper study.

    I'm sure some teachers could do more to promote math as fun and equal to all.

  10. As a secondary teacher, I hear it from girls all the time. " I am going to teach first grade, so I do not have to be good at math." It breaks my heart that teenage girls have already sold themselves short.