13 April 2017

Maths Anxiety

A lot has been written about maths anxiety in children. I have a Year 7 student who always complains that he 'can't do it' before he's even tried. It's clear to me where his anxiety stems from - unlike his peers, he doesn't know his times tables well, which makes many simple tasks (long multiplication, simplifying fractions etc) really difficult for him.

But this post isn't about maths anxiety in students. It's about maths anxiety in maths teachers. Whatever your job, when you stand up and say you're an expert at something, you naturally feel some anxiety that you'll get caught out. This isn't something unique to teaching. In my previous career in banking I often worried that I'd be asked a question that I couldn't answer. 

I experience most of my maths anxiety on Twitter, where I worry about saying something stupid and being publicly criticised by clever mathematicians. But I also sometimes feel a bit of maths anxiety in the classroom. I'm willing to bet that some of you do too.

1. The 'stupid mistake on the board' anxiety
I do this way more than I should! It's harder than it looks to simultaneously solve a mathematical problem, write on the board, address a class of 34 students, manage behaviour, and a thousand other things all at the same time. It's fairly common for me to say the number five as I write the number eight, and other equally silly things. When I taught at a girls' grammar school my students didn't have much tolerance for silly mistakes so I used to let it get to me, but now my lovely students just laugh with me, so I have more of a sense of humour about it.

It's good for students to see a real person doing real maths, and making mistakes in the same way they do. It will probably make them feel better about their own anxieties.
The worst thing is when no one notices, because that suggests that no one was paying attention! In a recent Year 12 lesson I made a mess of my solutions to a trigonometric equation (temporary craziness with the symmetry of a cosine graph) and no one said anything until later in the lesson when a student was looking back over his notes. Was no one even following what I was doing on the board? That's more worrying than me making a mistake in the first place!

2. The 'genius in the class' anxiety
It's taken me a while to accept that some students may be better at maths than me! Last year I taught a really clever Year 13 Further Maths class and they certainly kept me on my toes. Twice I had to tweet during a lesson to ask for help on questions they'd asked me!

Over the years I've got a lot better at saying 'I'll think about it and get back to you' if I'm asked a particularly tricky question. Then it's really satisfying when I work it out and am able to give them a good answer. 

3. The 'mind blank' anxiety
Often when I'm out for a meal with friends, they'll ask me to split the bill. Inevitably I'll have a total mind blank and completely forget how to do a simple division. It can be hard to do mental maths under pressure.
Of course, maths teachers are used to having maths problems sprung on them out of the blue. It's common for students to suddenly ask you to check an answer or figure out where they went wrong. It's absolutely fine to take a couple of minutes to look through their work. We put unnecessary pressure on ourselves.

4. The 'I have no idea how to do this question' anxiety
A lovely colleague of mine was recently teaching algebraic proof to Year 11 when she got stumped on this example, which she'd taken from the AQA Teaching Guidance:

Prove that the product of three consecutive positive integers must always be a multiple of 6

She wrote n(n+1)(n+2) on the board and expanded it, but then she got stuck. Her students waited while she struggled to work out what to do next. She gave up and admitted she didn't know, and they said, "Miss, if you can't do it, what chance have we got?". She was embarrassed and frustrated after the lesson. She asked me how to do it - I only knew because I've seen a similar question before. Things get easier with experience.

5. The 'I've never taught this before' anxiety
I was seriously rubbish the first time I taught C4 integration. Now I'm on my fifth time teaching it, I'm a million times better - in fact I now really enjoy it.

The first time we teach a new topic, we can feel like we're only one step ahead of our students. There are some new GCSE topics that many teachers haven't taught before. In this case it might be helpful to watch a video (eg Corbett Maths or Hegarty Maths) in advance - hearing another teacher explain a topic is really good preparation for teaching.

If you suffer from any maths teacher anxiety, I can assure you that you're not alone. Here are a few words of advice: 
  • Admit to any silly mistakes you make in lessons, and be relaxed about it. Encourage your students to tell you as soon as they spot something.
  • I'm sure you're awesome at maths. Of course you are. It's crazy to even doubt that. Being good at maths isn't something that goes away with age. Sure, we forget things, but we're smart enough to pick things up quickly. One of the joys of maths is getting the right answers, and you get plenty of right answers, so don't let the odd silly mistake suck the fun out of it.
  • Mental arithmetic mind blanks in lessons are easily dealt with - just throw the question out to the class. Someone will get it right, and if not then you've bought enough time to work it out.
  • If you genuinely aren't confident with a topic and you make errors that go beyond 'silly mistakes', then you do need to fix that as a matter of priority. Perhaps a bit more practice in advance of the lesson would be a good idea. The first time I taught FP1 I completed all the examples and exercises before every lesson. It's time consuming but important.
  • Don't let your students know if you lack confidence or you don't know a topic well. It's really important that they trust you. I know a teacher who recently told every parent at Parents Evening that she's an NQT and not entirely sure what she's doing. This is not a good idea! It undermines your authority. Even if you don't feel confident and enthusiastic, you must come across as confident and enthusiastic during lessons.
  • Know that it gets better with experience, and that if things don't always go to plan now, don't worry - in a few years it will be easier. You'll still make mistakes in lessons sometimes, because you're human. And that's ok.


  1. Hi Jo. This is a lovely to post think about over Easter.

    On one. I have a teacher reward students (eg sweets) for spotting mistakes. This seemed to work as students would challenge things that often weren't mistakes and maybe helped with attention a little.

    On two. I see this as an opportunity to say I don't know and happily say let's find out together. That journey of discovery can be compelling for children.

    1. Thanks for the comment! You've just reminded me about a post I wrote three years ago! http://www.resourceaholic.com/2014/08/deliberate-mistakes.html

      It's worth reading the article 'My Favourite Liar' that's mentioned in the comments.

    2. Useful tips. The first one of rewarding students for spotting mistakes will work with a class of really responsible students.
      Love the post. Agree in totality.

  2. I found AS level teaching difficult at first, but now in my 5th year of teaching it (C1 C2 S1) I'm so much more confident but still not amazing at the exam questions.
    As a particular song goes...
    "I'm only human after all, don't but your blame on me"

  3. It is a very valuable reflection. As a research professor, I analyze the emotional reactions of mathematics teachers. It's the subject of my undergraduate thesis.

  4. Even when teaching the simplest of maths there is that anxiety that you will just make it unnecessarily complicated; that you'll be making the subject worse not better.

  5. Great idea to voice this so openly, I know so many of my colleagues that are terrified of making a mistake..... we celebrate them and call them "juicy mistakes" now - not sure who I got that from - it was at a teach meet session.... also, my comment to the splitting the bill is always "you've got a phone and I'm off duty" - works every time and no judgements made.

    1. Also, getting top sets to find a difficult question and watching you struggle to solve it and seeing your thought processes works miracles - improves their confidence and resilience because they see that even the best of the best can struggle when confronted with something unseen

  6. I disagree with two bits, at least inasmuch as they don't work for me.

    "joke with your students that you were just checking they were paying attention." -- My wife had a teacher who routinely made this claim, and she HATED the teacher. She would have preferred if the teacher just admitted to have made an error. I admit to all my errors with my students, and it doesn't work against me. I do downplay the errors (oops, this should have been a 6, not a 9... backwards brain!), but I use the capital I get from admitting to my own errors to push my students to try despite theirs.

    "Don't let your students know if ... you don't know a topic well." Maybe it's just my personality and how I work it, but if I hit a blind spot, I'll say, "Huh, that problem didn't look this hard when I tried it last night... I'll have to take another look at it and get back to you." I don't do this often (maybe two or three times so far this school year), but the students don't seem to hold it against me when I do. Students do complain about other teachers who try to fake their way through things.

    Again, maybe it's my personality and how I work through it.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think I haven't explained my points clearly. On the first point, I just mean make light of it. I don't seriously pretend that I was trying to catch them out! That would obviously be a lie. They're not stupid! I just mean make a joke of it.

      On the second point, I'm not referring to blind spots. As I said elsewhere, if you have a blind spot then you should definitely admit to it. I mean that teachers shouldn't stand up at the start of the lesson and say 'We're doing constructions today... I'm not very good at this. I never liked it'. Or 'Today is iteration. I've never even done this before'. Perhaps I'm wrong but teachers should inspire enthusiasm and confidence about all topics, and if they haven't done something before then they should have prepared better so they go into the lesson confident.

    2. In that case, I agree. :)

      Today I was doing an example of "A plane is descending at 3 degrees to a runway that is 1700 ft below its current altitude. How far in miles is the plane from the runway?" I changed "miles" to "feet" and told the students I didn't recall how many feet are in a mile (I tossed out a number that I thought was correct, but I wasn't quite sure). That's a good and timely example of what I mean as a blind spot. (Since we're doing angles of elevation/depression, unit conversion isn't particularly relevant. I wish we Yanks would just join the rest of the world already.)

    3. I don't know that conversion either! But we're mostly metric in maths lessons here! I'd google that one in front of the class. I do that sometimes. It's good for them to see us looking things up.

  7. Thank you so much for this article Jo. I have been beating myself up over a ridiculously stupid mistake I made in one of my revision sessions last week. It was picked up by a fellow teacher and corrected with the student but nothing was said to me. It was embarrassing.
    I retrained to teach maths 2 years ago and I have been seriously thinking I'd made a mistake. I was doubting my ability to help students learn anything. Your article has helped me re-evaluate my thoughts and I'll go back next term with renewed vigour! I love teaching maths and I really appreciate the support of the maths teaching community. I have never known anything like it.
    Thanks again.

  8. As a math teacher ,I have had all these anxieties at some point:) Whenever I would start a real tedious problem or proof ,I would ask the students beforehand to keep an eye on the board .I used to say that telling you the concept is my job,and If I falter in any calculation at any step,It will be half your fault as much as mine..:)
    I have always been honest with my children and they love me for it.I have had kids in my class who knew more than me but wouldn't make noise or say anything unless I look towards them for help.
    Overall it has been a rewarding experience.

  9. Thank you as always for your articles. I have been teaching GCSE maths to resit students in a small FE college (small classes & 121 sometimes). Inspiring these students is the most important. I practice all my questions beforehand and often have answer sheets ready for them to self check, because I know I am not good at multi-tasking. But confidence and enthusiasm and very occasionally a student that will challenge me makes maths fun. I also have to spend a lot of time adapting resources for students with dyslexia or memory issues and find this particularly interesting - they often teach me a different way of thinking about a problem.
    Thank you again - it is reassuring to know we all make those daft mistakes & need to give ourselves time to think when asked - "where have I made the mistake Miss?"

  10. Thinking about the 'I have no idea how to do this question' anxiety, I reckon we should be modelling this MORE for our students. We tend to show them the procedure but, because we already know what procedure will work, we don't model how to identify it. Making explicit the whole thinking process of 'Could I try this? Could I try that? what happens if I generate a few examples? What do I notice? Why does it work? What does it remind me of?' might me more useful than the slickest of correct answers.

    1. True. I think this works wonderfully for some problems, less so for others. In the proof example I gave, the teacher met a dead end and probably wasn't going to have a flash of inspiration without a hint. Given the time constraints of the lesson and the need to keep students engaged, deep thinking in front of students doesn't always work. But for some problems and contexts, I totally agree - seeing the teacher try various approaches is beneficial.

  11. Helena Mandleberg21 April 2017 at 14:21

    It's so reassuring to read this just before I go back to school next week to teach topics I have never taught before (I'm a trainee). I've come into teaching after a career in the private sector and do find being 'a conscious incompetent' difficult! I'm lucky in that I don't generally get flustered in front of the class (it must be my age) if I make a mistake or say something silly but I do give myself a very hard time afterwards.

    I regularly question my mathematical ability and keep telling myself that it will get easier but it's great to read about very similar experiences and emotions here. Love your blog and the site - it's always my first port of call for resources. Keep up the great work :-)