I Tell Every One of My Students They're a 'Math Person'

Math was always my favorite subject throughout my K-12 schooling. It has always been the one subject that has come naturally to me. All throughout grade school, I was always among the top achievers in math, never earning a grade lower than a B. I prided myself on my ability to solve complicated computational problems, memorize algorithms, and be the go-to person for providing math tutoring to my classmates. I was so confident that I would still ace my math tests without a single minute of preparation.  

As a mathematics major at Temple University, I was either the only Black person or one of the only Black students in practically every math course I took. I can vividly recall those moments when I was struggling to stay afloat in those courses and I’d reached out to some of my white classmates for tutoring, only for them to decline. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I just stopped trying and shifted my focus to befriending any Black students I could find in my math courses.  

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At the time, there were very few Black mathematics majors walking around on campus so whenever I enrolled in a math course that had at least one other Black student, it made all the difference in the world! I felt more secure and safe, knowing that there was another Black student in the room who could empathize and relate to the imposter syndrome I was experiencing around my math ability. Even with that support, my confidence as a math learner gradually decreased as I progressed through my undergraduate years and the math courses became more challenging. After graduating with a 2.3 cumulative GPA in my math courses, I made up my mind that I didn’t have the chops to pursue math at the master's or doctorate level. In my mind, I thought:

  • “How could I possibly excel in math at the more advanced levels if I was barely passing my undergraduate math courses?”

  • “How did I go from being a high achieving math learner during my K-12 years to being an average math learner as a college student?

  • Can I still call myself a mathematician if I don’t have a master’s or doctoral degree in mathematics?

  • If I had at least one Black math professor during my undergraduate years, would that have changed the trajectory of my math journey? Would that exposure have been enough to inspire me to pursue an advanced degree in mathematics?  
Every now and then, I still wonder where my life would be today if I had sustained my confidence as a math learner throughout my undergraduate years and kept on pushing myself to further my math journey in academia.

Now don’t get wrong … I still think I’ve done pretty well for myself, but a part of me still wonders “What if …” 

It is those same “What ifs” that motivate me, as a secondary level math teacher, to push my students, especially my Black students, to reframe the stories they tell themselves about their perceived abilities as math learners. The most recent news about the Florida Department of Education rejecting more than 50 math textbooks from next school year’s curriculum due to alleged textbook references to critical race theory (CRT) is just one of many examples of how math education has served as a vehicle for oppressing and marginalizing Black and brown students for many generations.

Furthermore, the political pushback against the alleged indoctrination of CRT and the push for ethnic studies in math classrooms exists with the intention of maintaining a racial hierarchy of mathematical ability where white and Asian students are positioned at the top while Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students are placed at the bottom. These implicit messages around mathematical ability strongly influence the relationships that so many students of color have with math at the K-12 level.

So here’s the deal.

I've been teaching math at the secondary level for over 10 years and I can assure you that all this political rhetoric about the indoctrination of CRT in math classrooms is an absolute joke.

I have spent my entire teaching career teaching in urban schools with predominantly Black student populations. The only indoctrinating I’ve been doing during that time has been getting my Black and brown students to believe that they are just as capable of becoming strong math learners as their white peers.

To be more specific, I indoctrinate my students by:

  • Showing up as my authentic self, shamelessly sporting my locs, breaking into Black vernacular during math lessons, and infusing all aspects of my Blackness just so that they can feel secure in showing up as they are and still be considered mathematicians.

  • Dignifying their incorrect responses and asking them clarifying questions to further investigate the thought process they underwent to arrive at their response.

  • Openly expressing my vulnerability and shortcomings as a math learner so that they feel liberated to make mistakes, take academic risks, and further interrogate their mathematical thinking.

  • Exposing them to multiple images of contemporary and historical Black and brown mathematicians who have made significant contributions to the STEM field.  
Since whiteness has always served as the foundation for how we learn, teach, and engage in mathematics, it’s imperative that we, as math educators, continue to redefine what it means to be a “math person.” 

At the start of this year, I launched my newest podcast, Radical Math Talk, in an effort to highlight educators who are reshaping, redefining, and decolonizing the way that math education is taught in our schools. Understanding that math is a space where women and people of color have been effectively marginalized, I’ve intentionally interviewed women of color as guests for the first few episodes. Below are the stories of a few of these phenomenal women:   

There are so many other folx I could mention above, but the main point is that math people are everywhere! And for the record, they all don’t wear nerdy glasses, wrinkled shirts, and highwater pants. They all don’t hold advanced degrees in mathematics or dedicate their entire lives to proving centuries-old theorems and conjectures. And most importantly, they’re not all white! If we, as math educators, can commit to centering our pedagogy to humanize our students, we can push our students to reimagine the role that math plays in their lives. All of our students can be “math people.”

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Kwame Sarfo-Mensah
Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the ...

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