After my last post about how I used to cry myself to sleep over my math homework in middle school, one of my friends wanted to know, when did math start to make sense to me again?
Two words: Nancy Oliver.
My amazing ninth grade geometry teacher.
Nancy taught in a classroom where a former student had painted a colorful mural of the trig mnemonic “SOH CAH TOA” as a tribute to her on the back wall. In her room, I felt relaxed, focused, and safe. I had just spent three years of middle school algebra feeling panicked, utterly frustrated and incompetent in the math department. But with her instruction, I finally felt like math was something I was completely capable of doing.
How did she do it? Like any good teacher, she showed us what to do, and then gave us a chance to do it. At the beginning of each class, she’d demonstrate a new type of problem. Then, after answering our questions, she’d assign practice problems so we could practice what she’d just shown us. With her, even challenging proofs seemed like enjoyable puzzles to figure out. My brother and I still talk about what an amazing math teacher she was, over ten years after we took her class.
But when I reflected on my friend’s question, I realized something I’d never thought of before. Nancy Oliver, the only math teacher I had from 6th to 12th grade who was a woman, was also the only math teacher I had from 6th to 12th grade who really made sense to me. Coincidence?
Obviously there are some great male math teachers out there. I’ve worked with some of their students (Byron Parrish’s, at the Winsor School), I read their books and watched documentaries about them (Rafe Esquith), and I follow their blogs (Sam J. Shah). I was just never lucky enough to actually have one of them as a teacher myself! (Disclaimer: I also know from experience there are bad female math teachers out there.)
Maybe my personality and teaching/learning style was just more compatible with Nancy than with any of my other teachers. But it’s also possible that the fact that Nancy was a woman was a big part of why math finally started to make sense to me, a girl, when she was my teacher.
Maybe the secret ingredients were:
I felt completely comfortable asking her for help—more comfortable than I did with any other math teacher. I never, ever felt stupid or ashamed, no matter how confused I was. (In comparison, I often felt embarrassed asking my male teachers for help, even though I knew most of them wanted to be patient and kind with me.)
I understood her explanations. Nancy consistently explained things to me in a way that made sense to me. (I often felt discouraged even approaching my male math teachers for help. Not only did that mean I couldn’t figure it out by myself, but also, their explanations didn’t clear up my confusion as consistently as hers did.) It’s possible that Nancy approached math in a particular way as a woman that made it easier for me as a girl to understand her. Or, maybe she just had a larger repertoire of explanations than my male math teachers did.
She was a role model to me. Maybe I thought—even subconsciously—“if this awesome lady can do geometry, maybe I can too.”
Now that I’m a math tutor, I feel a special bond with many of my students who are girls. (I bond with my male students too, just over different things, like biking through Boston in the snow.) At first I thought that girly bonding—over the release of Mean Girls, or Betsey Johnson handbags shaped like strawberries, or mutual admiration for each other’s style—was just part of establishing rapport and helping my students feel comfortable. But now I wonder if maybe some girls just feel more comfortable with me as a role model because I’m female.
So, thank you, Nancy Oliver, for being my female math role model, and helping me turn everything around. I hope I can carry your torch!