In light of Oxford University Press’ #positiveaboutnumbers campaign, I have been inspired to share my own journey about maths anxiety and the impact it had on me growing up. As a child, I struggled with maths, as did everyone in my family it seemed. There was no-one to turn to at home – it was clear from the way my mum counted on her fingers, and whenever maths was mentioned shuddered audibly “urgh, not maths, I can’t do maths”, that she would be no help at all.
As I progressed through nursery and infant school, I wanted to like maths and remember feeling the incredible awe and excitement of being able to count to higher and higher numbers. The feeling was similar to taking off the stabilisers on a bike when I could count up in 2s and then in 5s at faster and faster speeds. But in primary school, when it came to subtraction and the dreaded division, I was lost again. My maths teacher once wrote in my report that I was the only child he knew who was so bad at anything mathematical that I couldn’t even draw a straight line with a ruler, let alone plot a line on a chart. The humiliation started to set in for real with times tables. I could get some of them – the 2s, 5s, 10s and some of the 3s, 4s and 11 times tables were just about in my control but to this day I still don’t have adequate command of all of them. I felt crushed as little gold and silver stars appeared on the reward charts in class next to everyone except me. It was only in my 40s when my own children started learning them, that they showed me the finger technique for learning the 9 times table and was delighted!
Playing the shame game
The growing feeling of shame and anxiety only increased as I progressed through to secondary school. In my first year at my new secondary school, the huge gap in my knowledge and mastery already firmly in place, I was naively determined to have a fresh start. But this soon unravelled. Our teacher liked to play a game with the whole class, it was meant to be a fun challenge. She would invite us to jump up onto our feet, take our places behind our desks and off she would go with some mental arithmetic for us. When we lost count, she instructed us, we should sit down. The last one standing was the winner. My heart was beating hard when she started with, “2 times 3, plus 3 take away 1”. My fists were screwed up by my sides, I am keeping up, I can do it….divided by 4 times 9, plus 17…” I sit down. There’s a snicker from the other children in the class as they carry on standing. What seems like hours pass until another girl sits down, then a span of time when a cluster more sit. And it continues until there are three, then two standing. The teacher stops. “What did you get?” she asks one of the two last students standing. “142” the penultimate one says. “And you?” she turns to the last one. “168”. Well done both of you. It was “142”. You win.
The next week, we did it again. I sat down after the first two questions “9 times 8, plus two..”, the class snickered. The teacher shot me a disapproving look. I am the class clown, fidgety and disruptive in her lessons. I don’t know my 9 times tables or my 8 times tables, what can I do? I think to myself. That afternoon, I go home determined to learn them but they just won’t stick.
After a few weeks of this maths game, I had noticed that while it was going on, the clever, confident ones were whispering to themselves, looking up at the ceiling or off to one side as they calculated. The next lesson, I stood up with everyone else as usual and decided to save face by play acting. I stood tapping out imaginary sums with my fingers on my thigh, eyes upward, mouth muttering quietly pretending to be concentrating, in command, keeping up. The plan was to sit down later on in the rank and file and avoid being seen as stupid yet again. But getting carried away with my oscar-winning performance meant it was too late when I realised I was one of the two still standing at the end. The teacher narrows her eyes at me suspiciously and asks, “Well, Penny, what did you get?” My heart sinks, the tears welling in my eyes…”Um….” The teacher insists, “Yes? We’re waiting…” I panic, “I forgot!” The teacher pushes me again, “You must know around about, was it above 100? Closer to 10? Well?” I look at my feet and the class erupts with laughter. The tears are cold on my hot cheeks. I am sent out and reprimanded for being disruptive and disrespectful.
The next week, we stand. The teacher starts, “ 7 times 12…” I sit down immediately, glaring at the teacher, angrily. They snicker. Every week for the rest of the year, we stand, she starts, I sit. Some days she sends me out to stand in the corridor in disgrace.
Making the grade
And so continued my soul crushing relationship with maths. Everyone in my family was struggling. My brother did his O’ levels, and got a U in maths. Three years later my sister got 10 O’levels all As and Bs – and a U in maths. The following year, I took my O’levels and got a U in maths. But something in me was determined to break the family curse. I went on to college for my A’ levels and decided to do maths again while I was there. I was at a Further Education college and in my class were people my age and also adults, trying to return to the education they weren’t able to complete when they were my age. I found this inspiring but also it made me ever more determined. Imagine if I’m still here in my 20s, 30s 50s trying to get this cursed maths pass! My teacher was kind and empathetic to us all. I felt a glimmer of hope at last. August came round, the brown envelope arrived. Again, a U. My heart felt crushed when I opened it with the results in. My teacher said, “not to worry, one more shot next year and you’re there”
The following year was the first year of the new GCSE exams that replaced O level, I was studying for the final year of my A levels, and had a weekend and holiday job that earned me enough money to get a private tutor for maths. I was entered into a GCSE paper for which the highest grade I could score was a C. My new private tutor was a taxi driver by day, but loved maths and had been tutoring a friend of mine for his A level, so he came recommended. I went to his house every week and he would puff away on his filterless cigarettes and walk me through the things I found impossible with such patience and in such a matter of fact way. The exam came and I felt I had at least some control, that I knew what to do, even if I wasn’t sure if my calculations were correct. I still had to count out numbers on my fingers and use techniques to add and subtract, and work around the dreaded times tables and division with methods that were long-winded and time-consuming. But I finished the paper, and I felt less out of control than usual. The long wait ensued and when the date came around, and the brown envelope arrived, I was amazed and delighted to have scored my C! I am the only one in my family with a maths GCSE. My parents were teachers, my brother is a composer for films and my sister works in documentary film. They have all had to duck and dive around the question of the missing maths qualification, but they are hugely successful in their own ways.
If you can’t do it, teach it…
Fast forward nearly a decade and I was now training to be a primary school teacher. The programme I did was focussed heavily on our own development as people as well as on the craft of teaching itself. In the second term, as we started to teach in the classroom for 2 days a week, we were asked to confront something in childhood that we felt had held us back and that perhaps could have been supported better by our teachers. I decided that it was time to tackle my maths problem. With coaching from one of my tutors, I was encouraged to teach maths to year 3 for a term. I was terrified that they would find out that I don’t know my times tables, and that I can barely add and subtract. But I did it, and I actually enjoyed it! I created resources and curriculum ideas that worked and that had enough in them to stretch the maths wizards and engaged those less confident.
Later in my teaching career, I moved to work in a secondary school and specialised in teaching English instead. As part of my training, we did a course on learning difficulties including dyslexia and dyscalculia. The consultant leading the course had expertise in diagnosing and supporting pupils with a range of difficulties and disabilities. She got us all to do part of a test for dyscalculia and dyslexia so we would know how the children are diagnosed. And the end of the session, she approached me and asked me how I was feeling. She asked about my sense of direction, my knowledge of times tables and other key mathematical functions and techniques. She told me that it was pretty clear that I am dyscalculic and that this is why I couldn’t retain my times tables. This was also why while I wanted to like maths, and indeed some parts of more abstract maths I could really run with, like algebra for example, there were parts that would always confuse and baffle me.
It was quite affirming to get this actual diagnosis. I was able to understand which parts of mathematical thinking I struggle with, and this facilitated me to develop techniques to deploy mathematical reasoning in my daily life, rather than avoiding it altogether. I will never be confident that I have the right answers when I have to use maths, but I know which parts I will need to double check and get another pair of eyes on and I feel confident to ask for this as an adult in the workplace without feeling childish and ashamed.
Breaking the family curse
My children often describe themselves as hating maths, despite my attempts to lightheartedly engage them in the beauty of maths through things like Numberjacks on YouTube when they were small, and other workbooks and fun games I found. I thought this might mitigate any creeping infection of the family maths issue that had started with my own mum’s lack of confidence and negative attitude to maths. My children are both girls and themselves attribute some of their lack of confidence to the boys in their class that are quick, vocal and withering to others. “I know, I know the answer, it’s eeeeeeeasy! You’re so slow and stupid!” they would shout out as my daughters plodded through. Unlike me, my girls have made their way to the top set in secondary school, but their lack of confidence and general distrust of maths did not diminished even so. This term my youngest, who is in year 9 said “my teacher thinks I might be dyscalculic but I’m still going to stay in the top set and I’m doing statistics GCSE next year. I won’t let it get in my way”. My oldest has just completed her GCSEs and summed up by saying, “I will always be rubbish at maths, but one thing I am really happy about is that I finally started to enjoy it, and I am even a little sad that I won’t ever be doing it again!”
I’m pleased that across a generation, we may still not be a family of maths wizards or super confident, but to know that this generation has managed to overcome the soul-crushing feeling of incompetence and the panic, gives me some comfort. And who knows, maybe the next generation might not even know that it’s possible not to feel positive about numbers. It is also great to see an organisation like Oxford University Press sharing their insights and resources to support those struggling with issues that I experienced. You can find their latest toolkit here