Fighting Content Anxiety

Some of my students were recently discussing their ideal school – a school where students vote in the faculty in an effort to keep out “evil teachers”. I asked how that would help, because then the school would be populated with popular teachers who might not be strong teachers. Well, it turns out I misunderstood their definition of “evil teachers”. These eighth graders wanted to create a faculty of teachers who were flexible in their teaching style and could shift explanations as needed to help lost students. They wanted teachers who create a learning environment within the classroom (much easier to do when the teacher isn’t trying to reach thirty or more kids in a single lesson).

But it did get me thinking, because I grew up in private schools where the largest class I ever sat in had twenty students. The worst classes I ever sat in were my Algebra Honors class (thirteen eighth graders, pilot program, college professor trying her hand at teaching in the 6-12 environment) and my Geometry Honors class (eighteen ninth graders, same college professor who still hadn’t figured out the difference between college and K-12). The very courses I teach and tutor now. I failed one and nearly failed the other when I was in my current students’ position because the teacher moved way too fast and we really couldn’t ask questions. Asking for help got us nowhere. I’d been tracked into honors math because I’d been strong at math in sixth and seventh grade, and for two years I felt completely stupid at math. The two years students often check out of math. It didn’t matter that when I moved away from this teacher I started acing math again. It didn’t matter that I actually got a college algebra professor fired for incompetence when I got to college. All I could see when I thought about math were those two awful years.

It’s really kind of funny I decided to pursue a teaching certificate in math, and it was solely so I wouldn’t look like a science nerd.

Maybe it’s better my own path went like this, because I know what went wrong in my math career and I can relate when it happens to my students and can offer them better suggestions and models for successfully navigating their own choppy seas. I encourage questions, and I don’t let them call themselves “stupid” for asking the question or for not knowing something they haven’t been taught. It’s amazing how the questions start pouring out when a kid realizes the teacher doesn’t think he’s stupid and that he’s going to get a useful answer. I’m lucky enough to be a position where kids work at their own rate, and I often remind those who feel like they’re straggling behind that they just need more time to process what they’re working on and there’s nothing wrong with that. (I also point out when they zip through a concept to show them that they really do move according to their own understanding.) I use a series of questions to help students think through their work so that, when I’m not around, they have a tool for directing themselves through a sticky problem. I also invite them to double check my work and call me on my mistakes so they can see we all make them, and then they help me fix whatever mistake I’ve made. They find this part pretty funny, but it also gives them permission to make mistakes and that often helps them relax a lot.

Because I teach primarily math, I know my content anxiety posts tend to focus on math anxiety, but there is a quiet reading anxiety going on in our culture, too. There are statistics about how few adults start a book once they’re beyond college, and even fewer finish them. (I’m not sure I believe that when I look at well-populated reading sites like goodreads.) It doesn’t get as much vocal attention, but it’s still there. I have to wonder why it’s all right to have limited literacy. Maybe some English or reading teacher has enough of the right information and experience with this to shed some light on that side of the coin?


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