Girls inheriting math anxiety from female teachers?

January 27, 2010, 7:00 am

The LA Times reports on a study suggesting that female elementary school teachers who are anxious about math transmit that anxiety to the girls in their classes:

Girls have long embraced the stereotype that they’re not supposed to be good at math. It seems they may be getting the idea from a surprising source — their female elementary school teachers.

First- and second-graders whose teachers were anxious about mathematics were more likely to believe that boys are hard-wired for math and that girls are better at reading, a new study has found. What’s more, the girls who bought into that notion scored significantly lower on math tests than their peers who didn’t.

The gap in test scores was not apparent in the fall when the kids were first tested, but emerged after spending a school year in the classrooms of teachers with math anxiety. That detail convinced researchers that the teachers — all of them women — were the culprits.

It’s no surprise that teachers who are weak in or nervous about a subject do not inspire confidence, or performance, in that subject among their students. What’s different here is the gender connection — female teachers having a pronounced effect upon girl students — and the subject area. It would be interesting to see just how many elementary school teachers view themselves as “anxious” about teaching math, and then to see how that self-description breaks down by gender. Do a lot of female elementary teachers feel anxious about math? Is it more than male elementary school teachers? I don’t know, but that is certainly the stereotype.

At any rate, the opposite seems to be implied by this study too — female teachers who are strong with math and comfortable with teaching it to kids will have an enhanced positive effect on girls’ perceptions of math and their performance with it.  And it seems like a no-brainer that elementary education curricula ought to stress a strong degree of math content mastery among all preservice teachers — of both genders — and demand a high level of fluency with doing and teaching math.Teaching math to little kids is hard, and you have to know a lot of math outside of what you are going to teach if you’re going to do it well. We need to have done with another stereotype: that you major in elementary education because “you just love kids” (you need more than sentimentality to be a good teacher) or because it’s supposedly an easy major (it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be).

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