Some primary maths teachers suffer from maths anxiety, which can have an effect on their ability to teach, an EIT | Te Pūkenga lecturer’s doctoral thesis has found.
Julie Whyte, a Teacher Educator in the Bachelor of Teaching (Primary) programme at EIT | Te Pūkenga, recently completed her thesis – Mathematics anxiety and primary school teachers: The histories, impacts, and influences, through Massey University.
Julie says maths anxiety is real and even affects teachers of the subject. Some primary maths teachers have modified their teaching patterns because of an anxiety that stems from when they were students.
“Society as a whole has this thing about maths. Most people can relate to sitting around a dinner table with friends, and if something came up about reading, no one would say that they couldn’t read or hated reading. But maths is different. People say things like: ‘Oh no, I’m useless at maths’ or ‘Yes, I hate maths as well. I can’t do it.’”
Julie’s Master’s also focused on the issue, which she first noticed when she was a primary school teacher in the Manawatū.
“What got me interested in it was that I noticed a couple of boys in my class seemed to have an adverse response to maths. Every time maths came up, they had all of these excuses not to get involved with it.”
It was at that point that Julie made the connection between the behaviours and maths anxiety and she decided to focus on teachers who had maths teaching anxiety.
Julie’s doctoral research looked at the personal histories and professional lives of 12 primary teacher participants who self-reported as maths anxious.
She found that responses to maths anxiety were wide-ranging and included [thought, physical, emotional, and neural] reactions.
“The 12 teachers that self-reported as being maths anxious identified specific teachers that had impacted on their mathematics learning and understanding and their feelings towards maths.”
“Three of them also identified their parents, but the main focus that came through was it was classroom experiences as students that led to their anxiety around maths.”
All of her participants said that they were maths anxious before they started teaching.
“One person in particular said they delayed their primary teaching qualification because of their maths anxiety.
Julie’s research found that the teachers came up with strategies to try to manage their maths anxiety, including limiting the level of their teaching to junior classes where the maths was considered not too hard.
Julie found that some of her participants spent considerable time preparing for their maths teaching. They were quite averse to mathematics, but this preparation meant that they gave considerable time to interacting with maths.
“One of them said her husband did not think her hourly rate was very high because of the long hours she put into preparing for her maths lessons.”
The respondents also spoke about their brains shutting down when confronted with maths problems.
“One participant wasn’t able to work out the basics of seven plus what equals ten. A teacher in a professional development environment couldn’t work out that seven plus three equals ten.”
It was not just teaching maths itself, but the anticipation of teaching it that caused anxiety also.
“If something new was added to the timetable – maybe Harold the Giraffe and the truck came along to do Life Ed – then they would shift maths to that time so that maths was the subject that was dropped that day.”
Other strategies include scheduling less time for maths, or only focussing on numbers and statistics and ignoring algebra or geometry.
Some participants distanced themselves from teaching maths by utilising book work, providing videos, or creating maths games. They encouraged children to do these tasks independently of them.
“I thought that professional development would be beneficial for teachers experiencing maths anxiety. However, I learned that this was not the case for many participants. They were worried that their colleagues would find out that they were ‘dumb’ at maths. Maths anxiety became their focus, so they often missed the opportunity to develop an understanding for and of maths.”
Julie says all 12 participants developed maths teaching anxiety, which is deemed to be a negative response specific to anticipation of, or involvement with, activity relating to mathematics teaching, or to the beliefs held in relation to perceived competence with teaching mathematics.
The interviews for the study were done over Skype and face-to-face. Julie is planning to use her research findings in a journal article and to do presentations on it as well.
Julie thanked the teachers for participating in the study and for the support she received from EIT | Te Pūkenga while she studied remotely through Massey University.