Here’s How Math Anxiety Is Passed from Teacher to Student, And How to Break the Cycle

Aug 12, 2022 4:58:01 PM

by Jason Ablin

Editor’s note: This column is an edited version of Jason Ablin’s original post, Mentor Teachers and Classroom Environments, which you can read here

I call the design of classroom space the second (or third) educator for students. However, issues arise when teachers unwittingly send counterproductive educational messages through classroom design. 

I once worked with a school where I waited until the teachers had constructed their spaces at the beginning of the school year. I photographed all of the classrooms' walls and spaces. 

Having reviewed all of the photos, I asked the teachers to consider a simple question: “According to the walls of the classrooms, what are the educational priorities of the school?” 

We broke down over 20 classrooms. We learned:

  • Just under 80% were covered in literacy and language prompts and student work. 
  • 10% were inspirational quotes and sayings.
  • 8% were history- and science-related.
  • Just 2% had anything to do with the study of mathematics.

The teachers were both shocked and surprised by the results. I asked them how much of their actual instructional time was spent on math, and obviously the numbers did not proportionally match what they saw on their classroom walls. 

We discussed and brainstormed strategies for how math might be effectively displayed on the walls and then discussed a more difficult question: 

Why were their classrooms so out of sync with the clear educational imperative to make students not only literate but numerate?

Generational Discouragement in Math


All the teachers I worked with at this school were women. 

This was not surprising, because only 3% of early childhood and primary grade educators in the United States identify as men. A number of the teachers mentioned how math was not a subject they enjoyed in school or even felt confident teaching. 

This response bears itself out in numerous studies which indicate an important factor in girls struggling to identify as math learners. Math confidence is a generational issue passed down by teachers with low math self-esteem transferring these feelings and thoughts to their female students. 

Gender is a powerful signifier for students about what learning matters and what they should be “good at.” When mothers tell their children that they need to wait for their father to come home to help with math homework, both boys and girls receive clear messages about false, innate arguments regarding learning and gender. 

The same is true in classrooms. The design of classroom space and who designs that space tells a gendered story to students about learning.

There are some simple steps that schools can take to make teachers more aware of classroom design in general that also address these implicit biases based on gender. 

Well-trained mentor teachers can have a positive impact! I have constructed a tool for administrators and mentor teachers to use with their faculty in thinking about classroom and school design. It is but one of a number of tools and exercises that I include in my book “The Gender Equation in Schools: How To Create Equity and Fairness for All Students.”

Teachers want to support students to feel that all learning is open and available to them. We need to support them by helping them to widen their lenses on issues such as gender bias and then provide concrete solutions.

Jason Ablin

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