Emotional Cycle of Teaching

I’m now in the second week of classes, and today I noticed how much my emotions have been fluctuating over the last week. I’ve experienced excitement, tension, anxiety/worry, happiness, connection, and isolation. For me, what primarily drives these emotions is how connected I feel and how exposed I feel. As I gear up for a class, I think about what I want to do and what the students might want and my anxiety and excitement both go up. I want the class to go well, and I manage the anxiety around that by preparing. Sometimes my preparation is great, and sometimes I over-prepare, repeatedly messing with my plans and making them more elaborate or complicated than they need to be. Essentially, the anxiety is about exposure and vulnerability. Teaching leaves you very vulnerable and we all deal with that vulnerability in different ways. The more I can just be OK with the vulnerability, the better things tend to go because when I do that I leave plenty of room for the students. When I get to tense and over-prepare, I tend to shut the students out, trying to control everything about the class. There’s a sweet spot to preparation, where I feel safe enough, but let myself be vulnerable enough to the students to make real connections. It’s often a hard spot for me to reach!

During class, my emotions all depend on what I get back from the students. If I’m getting a lot back from the students, I feel connected and less exposed, so I relax and take more risks. When I get less back from students, I talk more and feel more exposed and anxious. I want to focus this semester on watching the students more, no matter my mood, setting aside whatever anxiety I feel to really see what they are doing. It’s harder than it sounds, at least for me.

After a class, I tend to get a dip where I worry about both my performance and the students performance. What did they get out of the class? Are we moving in the right direction? Here I find that minute responses can help, because at least I have information from students and for me data is often an antidote to anxiety and that feeling of exposure. Even better is real conversations with students directly after class, and I want to make more of those happen. Checking in with students after class can lead to a great dialogue and a chance to offer support. I also feel relief after teaching — another class is over and I don’t have to start that cycle planning, execution, and evaluation for another couple of days.

Talks at Joint Math Meetings

I gave two (yes, two) talks at the Joint Math Meetings this week, and they both have prezi’s. The first talk was about my work using game theory to model gendered division of labor in parenting young children. This prezi is below (or click here to view at prezi.com), and the work will be appearing soon in the journal Rationality and Society.

The second talk was on shame and mathematics — what it is and what we can do about it. You can see that prezi below (or click here to view at prezi.com). If you have comments, questions, or just want to talk about this work, I’m very excited about it, so leave me a comment!

Why Shame? Why Mathematics?

Shame is an painful and disruptive emotion in which a person feels a deep-seated failure or flaw in their core self; the feeling is often experienced as feeling exposed, small, worthless, or wanting to withdraw or even die. Although shame can occur in private or in public it is a an emotion that signals a threat to our social being and the feeling can be characterized as feeling unworthy of human connection. Scheff and Retzinger make a case that shame is the “dominant emotion in social interactions,” but note that this shame is often unacknowledged and unclaimed.1 They note that, “Since one’s relationships and emotions don’t show up on a resume’, they have been de-emphasized to the point of disappearance. But shame and relationships don’t disappear, they just assume hidden and disguised forms.” 2

Shaming experiences can happen in all school learning, but students learning mathematics may be particularly vulnerable to such experiences. In a traditional mathematics classroom there is little ambiguity or room for interpretation in problems, and the learning is focused on products, rules, and algorithms. This “right or wrong” nature of mathematics can prevent students from saving face, or otherwise deflecting shame experiences, and can trap students who are struggling in a repeated cycle of negative experiences that are eventually felt as a flawed self. Doing mathematics requires a student to perform in ways that call into question not just her memory, but also her understanding and intelligence, both because mathematics requires the performance of mental skill and because mathematical competence is seen as a stand-in for overall intelligence and ability. As Tamara Bibby says in her paper on shame in mathematics, “It is important to be seen to be able to do/perform mathematics, i.e. ‘do it’ right quickly and efficiently—preferably mentally or with a neat paper and pencil algorithm with as little mark making as possible and with an exact answer.”3

Mathematics is seen as an objective judge, and this aspect of judgment may contribute to the experience of shame. Unlike other subjects, in mathematics there is often no room for other points of view. In science, the interpretation of data may lead to different conclusions, and theories change as new information comes to light. In history, there are some immutable facts, but there is plenty of room for interpretation through different lenses. In English, the interpretation and interaction with the subject is everything. School mathematics also generally requires the student to make a permanent record of their answers as well as the work behind those answers, both of which can make the student vulnerable to judgment.

It is clear why anxiety, panic, and fear were first identified as a barrier to doing mathematics. Many people doing mathematics feel a crippling panic as they sit down to do math. Laurie Buxton separates this anxiety into what she calls “mind chaos” and what she says is more common in math class, a “paralysis” of the mind.4 Fear is the presenting emotion, but shame is the core emotion since the fear is that “through an unwitting self-disclosure, you will allow someone to see your ineptitude and so open yourself to ridicule.”5.

Many people feel silenced by mathematics, lacking the vocabulary and voice to discuss their ideas and feelings. In mathematics classrooms, the discourse is generally out of the control of the student. In everyday conversation, students can manage their own self-disclosure and are likely to be engaged with a supportive other who will acknowledge the separate reality of the speaker. But in a mathematics classroom, the it may be impossible to keep some aspects of work private, and the discussions are around things that are right or wrong with no room for management or hiding.

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Shame, Anxiety, and Mathematics

It is taken as common knowledge that many people hate mathematics, that it is a difficult subject in school, and that not everyone has an aptitude for math (Sam & Ernest, 2000). People’s difficulties with mathematics often get blamed on what educators and researchers call mathematics anxiety, the fear of doing mathematics. The term “mathematics anxiety” first appeared in the literature in the early 1970s (Suinn et. al., 1972; Nash, 1970), and was popularized by Sheila Tobias and others working in the late 1970s to address mathematics anxiety, particularly in women (Tobias, 1993). The frame of mathematics anxiety has problems, however. When an experience or set of emotions is classified as a psychological disorder, the experience and the response are pathologized. The reality may be that what is termed “anxiety” is a normal and reasonable response to mathematics education.  Additionally, anxiety is an individual problem, but we have a society-wide issue with mathematics in the United States (Ginsberg et. al., 2005), so it would be useful to view problems with mathematics in a context that can include community and culture (Lave, 1988; Apple, 1990).
In addition to anxiety, many other emotions play a role in math avoidance and negative mathematical identities, and these emotions are linked to learning difficulties (Ashcraft & Krause, 2007; Lyons & Beilock, 2011). Over the past year, I have become increasingly convinced that shame is a primary emotion that negatively impacts mathematical identity, and that it is shame that gives rise to anxiety about, avoidance of, and disinterest in mathematics (Bibby, 2002; Ingleton & O’Regan, 2002; McGregor, 2005).
Shame is an intensely painful and disruptive emotion in which a person feels a deep-seated failure or flaw in their core self; the feeling is often experienced as feeling exposed, small, worthless, or wanting to withdraw or even die (Lewis, 1993).  Although shame can occur in private or in public it is a an emotion that signals a threat to our social being (Bibby, 2002) and the feeling can be characterized as feeling unworthy of human connection (Hartling et. al., 2000). Because shame is a relational emotion, considering the role of shame in mathematics places mathematical difficulties in a larger context which includes not only the learner, but also parents, teachers, administrators, and the entire society surrounding the learner.
Shaming experiences can happen in all school learning, but students learning mathematics may be particularly vulnerable to such experiences. In a traditional mathematics classroom there is little ambiguity or room for interpretation in problems, and the learning is focused on products, procedures, and algorithms. This “right or wrong” nature of mathematics can prevent students from saving face, or otherwise deflecting shame experiences, and can trap students who are struggling in a repeated cycle of negative experiences that are eventually felt as a flawed self. Doing mathematics requires a student to perform in ways that call into question not just her memory, but also her understanding and intelligence, since mathematical competence is seen as a stand-in for overall intelligence and ability (Sam & Ernest, 2000).
Shame can render a person passive and helpless (Miller, 1993) which impacts his ability to learn and to teach. To be able to effectively do mathematics, a person needs to perceive of himself as powerful, which means that he must be free of shame. People have a tendency to be both unaware of shame (Lewis, 1971) and to “catch” the shame of others, feeling ashamed of their shame (Scheff, 1988). The collective shame that our society holds about mathematics impacts all of us, and pressure for change gets transmitted to politicians, school districts, teachers, and finally to students, as teachers and parents respond to the pressure and shame by hiding difficulties, avoiding problematic encounters with mathematics, or even unconsciously shaming students as they struggle with math.

There are many suggestions for how we might solve our “math problem” in the United States, and many of those suggestions have great potential. However, teachers and students cannot make effective use of inspired methods of teaching and learning without attending to affective and relational issues, and this includes shame. People have many responses to shame, from pushing for greater competence to secure social acceptance, to adopting being “bad at math” a part of their identity that may be accepted by others, to withdrawing and avoiding math, to anger at self or others, to manipulations that paint the self in a better light (Bibby, 2002; Brown, 2007). Many of these responses are disempowering and result in isolation (Hartling et. al., 2000) and failure to achieve academic goals (Turner et. al., 2002).
If people face their shame while staying vulnerable and authentic, they can reclaim power and heal (Brown, 2007; Hartling et. al., 2000). Math teachers deal daily with students who cannot handle failure, because failure is a trigger for shame (Brown, 2007; Turner et. al., 2002). It is crucial to publically identify shame as a source of disconnection and difficulty (Hartling et. al., 2000), and once shame and its triggers are identified, alternate methods of responding to those triggers can be developed. To create change on a broad scale, we need to get people collectively address shame and mathematical power, to listen deeply to those who have been disempowered by mathematics, and to transform the shame held by parents, teachers, and school administrators, since those groups have so much influence on young people.

* I have written previously about most of these ideas, but the version above is more succinct and better (although not comprehensively) referenced. I’m going to be working up a bibliography to share as part of a paper I am currently writing. References below the cut.

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Brief updates

Last week was spring break, and like many professors around the world, I didn’t get enough grading done. But when we came back this week, I was able to reconnect with the Math, Art, and Design class that the students took over. I had good intentions after that class of emailing the students and letting them know how much I appreciated the class. I never did that, so in our first class back from break, I felt I really had to address what had happened. I started with, “Wow, that last class was rough,” and I went on to tell them most of what I had written about in the blog post. I was happy that several of the students wanted to talk about what had happened, and many of them also wanted to reassure me about the class. I said a bit about power in the classroom, and that I have a real belief in the importance of giving them power, but that I found that in practice that can be really challenging. I also fessed up to the fact that I had been trying to shove a lot of content under the rug. So we started over, and I gave them what I think was a good, visual introduction to complex numbers and operations with complex numbers. The nice thing was that they all seemed to “get it.”

In contrast, my second Math, Art, and Design class is still a huge challenge for me. I did a better job of having them work this week. I find that I have to be very explicit with this class. If I say, “Do these calculations,” most of them are stuck until I start to lead them through, asking focused, direct questions at each step (e.g. “Do you know what this question means?” or “Can you point to that on the graph?”). The trouble is that if I try to do that with the whole class, I generally can only get one or two of them engaged. So I have to do this explicit drawing out with each student. Luckily there are only eight students. Today for part of the time I was having them use computer programs, and I have to be clear about the directions there. “Use one of these two tools which you will find on the schedule and assignments page on the course website” usually leaves them still sitting there until I say, “Right now I want you to go to the course website. Then click on _____ and scroll down to ____. From there, click on the link under #2 or #3.”

I still feel so lost with this class, that I don’t even know why they get so frozen and nonresponsive. If I had to guess, which at this point is my only option, I’d say that there is no trust in the class. I haven’t actually put any kind of real changes into the classroom because I’m a big chicken and I don’t feel safe in the classroom. I have been avoiding having them give feedback for weeks, but I really need to connect with them next week. I have connected with a few of them, but on the whole the class still feels like a really really awkward blind date.

 

Ever have one of those days?

Today I had one of those days as a teacher, the one where everything goes wrong. The kind where I got to class one minute late, forgot something I needed to hand back to a student, had four students absent out of nine, and planned to show several video clips as part of the class, none of which actually worked. And of course, after a day like this I’m heading back to my office and I get to thinking about how I really should have done the first two units in Math, Art, and Design differently this semester. I should have combined the topics of infinity and fractals which would have allowed me to alternate classes that were more abstract and cerebral with classes in which the fractal visuals provided both grounding and motivation. Why didn’t I think of that?

That’s when I got back down to my office and realized that I left my keys upstairs. On the way back up I started thinking about how I should have just abandoned my script once I realized that technology was not going to be my friend today, and done something hands-on. Moments later I’m back to the classroom, but the door is shut and I have now left the ID that I need to get into the classroom downstairs by my office. So I turn around in something of a huff and that’s when I realize that I’m not really all that good at going off script, especially not in this class, and in my current frame of mind that just says that I’m kind of a crappy teacher. Then I’m downstairs getting the ID, back up again getting the keys, and back down to the office, and my main focus is berating myself for my lack of student participation and the fact that this class isn’t inquiry-based and student led.

Yes, I know I’m not really a shitty teacher, but teaching is a job that we are going to screw up repeatedly. Wait, maybe all jobs are like that. I think maybe teaching is like being a stand-up comedian. In either case you are going to fall on your face repeatedly, and when you do there will be an audience, magnifying your failure. But tomorrow is another day…