Who Belongs in our Math Classrooms?

Many students enter mathematics classrooms with a sense of trepidation.  For some, their discomfort reflects a larger sense of detachment from school. They may have not felt welcomed because of the gaps they experience navigating between their home language or culture and the expectations at school. The social milieu of school may make them feel like an outcast, as they see peers who seamlessly “fit in” while they remain on the outside. Unlike the sports field, their community center, or the stage, academics may make them feel untalented and incompetent. For other students, school itself is fine, but there is a distinct dread upon entering math class. Math has never made sense –– or perhaps it used to make sense when it was whole numbers and counting, but as soon as the variables showed up, all hope was lost. They may have been demoralized by a standardized test score that deemed them below grade level. They may get messages at home that “we’re not good at math.” For still other students, they love the subject, but must contend with people who do not see them as fitting their ideas of a person who is good at math. They have to combat stereotypes to be seen as legitimate participant in the classroom, as they defy expectations by holding forth with their smartness even as others look on in dismay.

For most students, alienation can be overcome by teachers who create a sense of belongingness. Belongingness comes about when students experience frequent, pleasant interactions with their peers and teacher. It also comes about with the sense that others are concerned for who they are and for their wellbeing.

Why Belongingness Matters
When I go and observe in mathematics classrooms, I can usually ascertain students’ general sense of belongingness. What is their affect as they walk through the door? How warmly and personally do they greet the teacher and each other? Are they represented –– through math work or other means –– on what is posted on the walls?
All too often, I see students enter their math classrooms with a sense of gloom. Smiles disappear as they cross the threshold of the doorway. Their posture slumps. They sit at the back of the room or put their heads on their desks.They may even groan or launch into a litany of complaints. When I observe these student behaviors as a teacher, it signals that I have work to do to make children feel more welcomed and excited about spending their time with me learning mathematics.

Teachers’ relationships with students are an important source of of belongingness, but peers are equally (if not more) important. Even if a teacher welcomes each student with a smile and takes an interest in who they are, frequent insults or intimidation from other students can create a negative classroom climate. To support belongingness, then, teachers need to do more than create strong relationships. In addition, they need to create norms and expectations about how students treat each other.

During adolescence, children face the enormous task of developing a strong and stable sense of themselves. Although this identity development happens over the course of a lifetime, adolescence is distinct because it is when children are first able to think abstractly enough to grapple with both their own emerging self-understandings as well as how society views them. This leads to both a delightful self-awareness as well as a sometimes painful sense of self-consciousness for many students, as they are more sensitive to others’ perspectives and feedback. Necessarily, then, inclusive and inviting classrooms provide a place for this crucial developmental work, particularly in relationship to school in general and mathematics in particular.

What Gets in the Way of Belongingness
Although I generally avoid absolutes when it comes to describing good teaching, I will highlight a few common instructional practices that feed a negative classroom climate, thus working against belongingness. First, many math classrooms emphasize competition. Whether this comes from formal races, timed tests, or just students’ constant comparison of grades, competition sends a strong message that some people are more mathematically able than others. This is problematic because there is typically one kind of smartness that leads students to “win” these competitions: quick and accurate calculation. To paraphrase mathematician John Allen Paulos, nobody tells you that you cannot be a writer because you are not a fast typist; yet we regularly communicate to students that they cannot be mathematicians because they do not compute quickly. While a competitive dynamic may be at play in other school subjects, it is especially toxic in math classrooms because students do not have other venues to explore and affirm their diverse mathematical talents.

Another contributor to negative classroom climate comes from devaluing who students are. This may come in many forms, some of which teachers may not realize. For instance, some teachers avoid using what is for them an unfamiliar (thus difficult-to-pronounce) name. Not only does this lead to fewer invitations to participate, it communicates to students that we are not comfortable with something that might make them different than us. Names are deeply personal, one of the first words students identify with: They often reflect home cultures and personal history. When teachers avoid them or change them without consent, they devalue something of who students are.

Likewise, when teachers problematically differentiate their treatment of students based on cultural styles, they can devalue who students are. For instance, educational researcher Ebony McGee studies successful students of color in STEM fields. She interviewed a Black chemistry major at a primarily White institution who reported that a White instructor avoided her when she dressed in a way often perceived by middle class teachers as “ghetto.” When she changed her clothing and hair style, he told her, “Now you actually look presentable. I bet you are making better grades too.” Similarly, in a research project I conducted, a female high school student concluded that her math teacher “didn’t like” her after the teacher emailed her mother that her skirts were “too short.” Adolescents use clothing to express themselves and their culture as a part of the identity work they engage in. Avoiding or rejecting them because of these forms of self-expression can further estrange them from the classroom or school. If concerns need to be raised, they should be done in a way that respects students’ self-expression.

Finally, teachers may alienate students by correcting the inconsequential. Although our job is to help students become educated people, when we correct the inconsequential, we may work against other goals of engagement and inclusion. Deciding what is inconsequential is, of course, a judgment call: context is everything. For instance, our standards for speech and language differ when students try to explain an idea they are in the midst of grappling with versus when they are preparing for a job interview. In the former situation, correct grammar is not the point, while in the second, it may matter a lot. If our students are learning English as a second language, speaking a pidgin or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), our focus on correct grammar in situations where it is inconsequential may disinvite their participation.

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