Disrupting Shame in Mathematics

Once we can see that shame is causing problems with mathematics in ourselves or in others, what can we do about it? How can teachers, parents, and those experiencing shame disrupt that shame and claim power through mathematics?

  1. Learn to recognize shame. One of the first ingredients in healing from shame is learning to see that shame is happening. Shame is notoriously difficult to identify because it is a taboo emotion, but you can learn to recognize shame. The best place to start is with your own shame and embarrassment, and shame is ubiquitous, so any day should bring you opportunities. Once you can see shame in yourself, start looking for signs in others. Imagine if you are a teacher or parent that your student or child is embarrassed and you mistook that for not caring or wanting to make trouble. Noticing shame cues, you can be careful not to invade another’s space and activate fear of exposure or to create so much distance that we abandon the other.
  2. Be vulnerable. The only way out of shame is through it. Shame is a signal of a threat to ourselves as social beings, and if we try to ignore or supress shame, we aren’t able to repair relationships. Instead we hide, get angry at ourselves and others, and lose our power and confidence. Expressing worries, embarrassment, and shame openly with others will create safety and opportunities for connection and transformation. Start with colleagues and friends. If you are a teacher, you need to use caution with self-disclosure, but sharing your shame/anxiety/frustration can help students to envision a different ending to their stories, one in which they are more powerful and connected. In the classroom, let students know that you respect them, interrupt threats of humiliation, and apologize when you do something wrong.
  3. Develop critical awareness of mathematics. Work to develop an awareness of the role that math plays in our society, who benefits and who is harmed, and your individual place in that structure. Consider race, class, and gender; look at stereotype threat, implicit attitudes, and issues of access. Take a critical look at mathematics requirements in high school and college and who they serve. If you are a teacher, listen to students, and assume that they have something important to say about mathematics and learning, and create opportunities to learn with your students. Learn more about the educational system, your role in it, and ways that you are kept from authentic engagement and assessment.
  4. Focus on choice of strategy and mindset. Claim your choice of strategy when you encounter mathematics, even if the only strategy you use are avoidance! Learning about other strategies may help you to grow, but simply claiming the power that you already use is important. Learn about mindsets, and explore the mindset you typically use and whether you might want to change. If you are teacher, help your students explore mindsets and strategy. Be careful to avoid moral judgments around mindsets! Growth mindsets can be useful, but they are not “right” — fixed mindsets can be useful as well!
  5. Be aware of emotions in mathematical problem solving. Lots of emotions come up for everyone as we encounter and try to solve problems — frustration, fear, shame, pride, anger, and more. These emotions are a natural part of challenging ourselves and being in connection with others. We don’t have to have therapy every time we sit down to do some math, but it’s useful to be able to label feelings and accept them as part of the process.

I will be writing more about each of these areas in the coming weeks, so stay tuned! Meanwhile, does any of this ring true with you? What am I missing? What do you find useful as a learner or a teacher in changing your relationship with mathematics or other subjects?


4 thoughts on “Disrupting Shame in Mathematics

  1. patlockley (@patlockley) says:

    I wonder if maths is a problem as people assume maths problems means addition, but not trig, or calculus? Perhaps given the broadness of the topic, it creates shame inevitably – people can’t read, write, spell, pronounce – but this doesn’t feel like English as a topic, more skills?

    • Angela Vierling-Claassen says:

      That’s an interesting point. I have read some research that I could find somewhere in my files about how elementary students move what they think really counts as math as they progress. What counts as “real math” is always something that is more difficult that what you can do. I do think that our fuzzy understanding of math as a subject really contributes, and the fact that we have some sense of ownership of a subject like English, but we think someone else is in charge of a subject like math.

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