One of my most hated phrases in the English language is “I am not a math person.” People casually toss out this phrase as soon as I say I have a degree in mathematics or that I love math. They wear this phrase as badge of honor on their sleeve as if it makes them part of the cool kids club. Not only is it completely acceptable, but for some people it is absolutely expected that they hate math. But if I were to suddenly announce at a party that “I hate literacy” or that “I just don’t have the mind to make sense of all those letters”, I would immediately be counseled or looked down upon or admitted into some program in order to rectify such an unacceptable stance.
So what is the difference with math? Why are people so afraid of it? Why is it acceptable to be math illiterate? These questions motivate my teaching philosophy. It is not my belief that everyone needs to earn a graduate level degree in mathematics, but it is my belief that every person needs to be math literate.
Math literacy does not solely entail being able to figure out the tip after dinner or to determine whether it is better to get the large container of laundry detergent or the smaller. Though those skills are important and necessary, to me, a larger part of math literacy is being able to problem solve. Having the ability to assess a question and follow a process in order to answer it is a skill that everyone needs and it is exactly what mathematics teaches. It is an ability just as necessary to life as reading.
When I taught high school, I would tell my athletes that doing math can be compared to doing sit-ups. You would never stop in the middle of a game and break out into sit-ups. But you do sit-ups in practice in order to get your body into shape so you can perform better in the game. Likewise, you may never need to graph a quadratic equation in your life, but knowing how to think through that process is going to make you a better equipped player in the game of life.
In my nine years of teaching high school, I endeavored to take the fear out of mathematics for my students and make it accessible to all, not just those who ‘like’ math. Further than that, I also want to allow my students to see the beauty in math. Many believe that math is just numbers and formulas, but it is so much more. Mathematics helps us understand the world around us and, therefore, everything we see and enjoy has some sort of basis in a mathematical principal. Just like poetry can be studied in English class to express beauty through words, things like fractals and sequences can express beauty through numbers. Even music can be explained through math!
As I continue my teaching career at the collegiate level, I seek to open up a world of math literacy and beauty for my students.