My maths anxiety

She struggled with maths as a child. It made her a better teacher. A personal reflection by Ann V. Klotz.

My third-grade son is hard at work on mastering his math facts. He has finished addition, has done a hit-or-miss job with subtraction, and is part way through multiplication. Instead of flash cards, he has an array of digital study aids. He particularly likes the cheery little man on the iPad who encourages him to race the teacher and keeps track of how quickly and how accurately he answers. 6 x 6? 5 x 8? 7 x 4? Right every time.

Each night, I see his confidence grow. He answers more readily as he masters certain facts. Sometimes he types the wrong answer by accident or because he isn’t yet sure. Occasionally, I take a turn typing, like tonight when the puppy bit his index finger.

Suddenly, I find myself slipping back into fourth grade again, behind in math, sitting on my father’s lap, wondering if I will ever keep the right answer in my head. I loved sitting with my father in his desk chair in the office he kept on the second floor of our house. The room smelled of old books. Papers were strewn about. On the walls: black and white photographs of his athletic teams. My father was so patient then. He laboriously made flash cards in blue Flair pen. But during those sessions, I felt less than inadequate. I knew I ought to know those facts. Everybody else did. But I was full of doubt and fear, certain that I would never learn them. Curiously, I could learn poetry by heart and hold onto all sorts of other information, but with the multiplication facts, I had a block.

I went on in math, of course, gradually gaining more confidence in the hands of some brilliant women teachers who affirmed me. They looked past my fear and reassured me that I was competent, and their kind unshakable belief eventually persuaded me. But by junior year in high school, I had finished with the whole ugly business. No calculus, no physics. And no math in college. No GRE [a graduate-level admissions test] either — I chose a graduate program that did not require a math test.

But after college, I ran a summer theater program with my husband — and kept it in the black for 25 years. I learned how to bring a show, a season, in on budget, how to raise enough money to cover our expenses and to do more with less. That experience fostered the financial acumen I required as the head of a girls’ school, reading year-to-date statements, thinking constantly about numbers. When I sat in my first investment committee meetings as head, I heard my mother urging, ‘Don’t touch the principal.’ In buildings and grounds meetings, I could hear her muttering, ‘If you defer maintenance, it will cost you more later.’ There were things I knew that I didn’t even know I knew. My mother was a Depression-era baby who never went to college, but she had superb number sense, and by some osmosis, I absorbed her good financial instincts, even though, at one point, it seemed math might stop me dead in my tracks.

In Tina Howe’s beautiful play Painting Churches, the lead character, Mags, is the misunderstood artist-daughter­ of two aging WASP parents. When they dismiss her gifts as an artist, Mags finally says, in quiet desperation, ‘You see, I had… I mean, I have abilities… (struggling to say it) I have abilities. I have… strong abilities. I have… very strong abilities. They are very strong… very, very strong.’


In that sad and defiant line at the end of the play, Mags claims her artistic self, her talent, her capabilities. At nine, in Daddy’s office, tears blurring my eyes, unable to remember the right answer to 7 x 8, I didn’t know that I have abilities, too.

I wonder now how my parents coped with my frustration in fourth grade, my tears, my desperation, my unshakable sense that I would never learn those facts? Did they whisper late at night? Consult with my older siblings? Or did they understand, as I did not, that one day, it would all click? Here’s what I know: Feeling ‘less than’ in math has made me a better, more empathetic teacher. I know what it feels like not to grasp a concept easily. As an English teacher, I am always mindful that not every girl loves language and reading the way I do. She, too, may feel hopeless from time to time, and it’s my job to help her feel more confident and competent, to find triumph in the struggle.

It’s a source of pride for me that both my daughters took calculus; that one chose to go on with math in college. I’m happy that they grew up sans the fear that gripped me.

And now here’s our boy, unfazed, willing to trust the process, to know, with his growth mindset, that he will soon learn all his facts and that everyone learns at his or her own rate. We laugh together as he completes a run of 64 right — a world’s record.

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About the author

Ann V. Klotz is  head of Laurel School, Ohio, United States of America

(This article first appeared in Independent School magazine, published by the National Association of Independent Schools, USA, and is republished here with permission.)

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