Educator Practice

Discovering Each Teacher's "Math Autobiography"

January 9, 2023
Content-Rich Curriculum
Dr. Kim Melgar
Relay faculty

What are the most powerful memories you have about learning math? Did it always feel fun and easy, supported by parents and teachers who gave you confidence? Was it generally enjoyable, but marred by a few bad experiences, like mean teachers, critical parents, and traumatic life events that impacted school? Or has math long felt like a struggle - one where you never received support?

These home and school experiences shape the way we each think about our abilities - and thus, how much we gravitate to, persevere at, and ask for help with our school subjects. They are especially impactful in math, where students may hear the phrase "I'm not a math person" - which conveys the common erroneous belief that math is something you either "get" or you don't. These experiences are a part of each person's "math identity". To support students to be successful mathematicians, teachers must understand the math identities their students bring to the classroom, and commit to being a positive force in shaping them for the future.

But first, teachers must understand their own math identities. Only by exploring their experiences can they identify how they may replicate their own traumas and biases - or, conversely, re-create the fun, engaging math classrooms and mentor relationships they remember. This is true whether you're a high school calculus teacher or an elementary school teacher who dislikes math. Those for whom math has always "come easily" may need to learn more diverse strategies for breaking down concepts and remaining patient as learners struggle through a task. Those who had punishing or demeaning adults in their lives, or had teachers who simply did not know how to break down a problem, may need to relearn their own confidence and acquire math pedagogy skills. For all groups, remembering the caring, patient, and supportive adults they still cherish, is a welcome reminder of just how much impact one teacher can make.

In our Relay teacher preparation curriculum for math teachers, we start by asking Relay students to write their own math autobiography. The exercise works like this:

  • Relay students read this article by North Carolina State University researchers Allison W. McCulloch, Patricia L. Marshall, Jessica T. DeCuir-Gunby and Ticola S. Caldwall
  • Relay students write their own math autobiography as well as a reflection on it, answering these questions:
  • ~Consider the beliefs you named in the pre-work about what it means to teach math, who can learn math, and how math should be taught. How have your experiences with math informed how you currently think?
  • ~ What do you want all students to believe about math based on their experience with you this year?
  • ~What, if anything, do you need to change about your beliefs and mindsets in order to help all students believe this?
  • ~What support might you need to shift these beliefs and mindsets?
  • Relay students then share portions of their autobiographies and reflections in class as the basis of discussion, connection, and greater self-understanding

During this exercise, we often hear Relay students say things like, “I feel affirmed” or “Wow, I thought math just wasn’t for me, but I see now how I was taught that”, or “I didn’t realize that this previous experience caused trauma for me in math”. Students may describe how it felt to be the only person of color in advanced math classes, or other experiences related to how their identity - from race, to gender, disability, sexuality, religion, nationality, perceived family income, and more - led others to make assumptions about them and either limit or support their math confidence. For many, it is the first time really confronting the idea of trauma within school, and how they still carry the negative experiences today. But nearly everyone can also remember a teacher, parent, or mentor who connected with them, supported them, and turned them on the path to teaching. These are the "aha" moments that will shape teachers' classrooms for years to come.

If you are a school or school system leader and want to learn more about enrolling prospective teachers or currents in a teacher residency and/ or masters degree program, start on our Locations page to see the programs available in your state.

Dr. Kim Melgar

Kim Melgar is the Department Chair, Mathematics at Relay Graduate School of Education. This is her 15th year in what she describes as the best field - education. Kim taught middle school math and science and served as an instructional coach in the South Bronx before joining Relay, where she has also taught aspiring teachers as an adjunct and assistant professor. Kim is passionate about all things math, including how to create inclusive math classrooms through UDL, support multilingual learners, and help teachers and students see themselves as “math people.”