Math Education as Social Empowerment

After a wild ride working centrally in the Toronto District School Board, I’m heading back to the classroom at Westview Centennial Secondary School in Toronto’s northwest and looking forward to putting in action all that I have learned over the past three years. I hope to keep up a short weekly blog now that the work life will be (somewhat) more predictable! These blogs will be mainly my reflections, a-ha moments, soapbox-type rants, sharing of insecurities and other stuff I’d like to share.

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Right now, I’m in the middle of teaching summer school with students that didn’t get a passing grade in their regular day school math class. I asked them all why they didn’t pass the first time around, and the answers varied from external factors (“my teacher and I didn’t get along at all”) to internal reasons (“I just gave up because it was too hard”). For me, when I see students that haven’t been successful in math, I feel that they’re at risk of being less powerful than those that are successful in math class. Yes, math is power.

Think about it: those that can do math well are the ones that have greater access to high socioeconomic status STEM fields including medicine, engineering, digital information management, etc. Doing well in math and taking higher-level math courses is also related to being able to enter non-STEM programs in colleges and universities, many of which involve taking some kind of statistics course anyway. It also impacts one’s personal identity as it relates to math. The “I’m not a math person” label, even though there’s no such thing, is often internalized after traumatic experiences with learning math and holds people back from activities like helping their children with learning math at home or, in the case of some teachers, teaching math confidently in the classroom. Finally, students that have historically not been serviced well in terms of math education are from low-SES backgrounds and who stand to gain the most from high-quality math learning.

That’s why teachers of math, whether they’re in an elementary or secondary setting, need to view what they do as a form of social empowerment. It is not just curriculum expectations that teachers check off and see merely as obligations to their day. Math is powerful enough to shape people’s lives, and that’s not an exaggeration. If we view it with that type of urgency, teachers would keep the bar high for all students, make sure that those that are struggling receive all the help they need, adjust their teaching practice if something’s not working in the classroom, and connect the mathematics to students’ lives. I’m approaching summer school this way — I’m on a mission to help students with (re-)empowering themselves with math knowledge and critical thinking experience so that they can be better prepared as citizens in a 21st-century context that is increasingly mathematical and problem-based. That’s what’s been keeping my engine going all week — and will all month — with these students that deserve to be good at math.