Female elementary school teachers may project a fear of math onto their female students, causing them to do poorly in the subject, according to a new study, “Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Impacts Girls’ Math Achievement,” published by the University of Chicago on January 25, 2010. With over 90 percent of elementary school teachers being female, this finding has brought attention to gender roles within elementary education and could have administrators seeking additional professional development for teachers anxious about math.
Sian Beilock, associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, conducted this study in a large, public, urban Midwestern school district and surveyed 17 teachers, 52 male students and 65 female students in first- and second-grade classrooms over the course of one academic year. A series of tests revealed all the teachers involved had a significant level of anxiety while doing math, and as a result, while teaching it in the classroom.
Students participated in an activity designed to assess their subconscious gender role beliefs. They were read two gender-neutral stories, one about a high-achieving math student and the other about a strong reading student, and were then asked to draw the students. Researchers were interested in what gender the respective students were depicted as. At the beginning of the year, there was no strong correlation; when the test was redistributed to the same students at the end of the year, many female students drew a male student as being good at math and a female student being good at reading. These girls had the lowest math scores in the class.
“I think this shows we need to make sure we’re preparing early-grade teachers with what they need,” says Beilock. “It’s not only about skills, but also positive attitudes and not being gender specific in who teachers think is better in math.”
Hank Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM), thinks this study could force districts to look more critically at how math is approached in the classroom. “We have to be sure that teachers have a chance to work together, to come up with common lessons, talk through curriculum as a group, maybe with a math teacher leader, and to challenge themselves as adults.”
While the study sheds light on certain trends within elementary education, it opens the door to future questions. The study did not address the role of male teachers in the classroom and their role in reinforcing gender stereotypes. Because children are more likely to emulate teachers of the same gender, the study speculates it is more likely that male teachers who have an anxiety toward reading may project that onto young boys. “If it is simply the case that highly math-anxious teachers are worse math teachers, then one would expect to see a relation between teacher anxiety and the math achievement of both boys and girls,” the study notes.
”We need training around biases,” says Kepner. “We can take videos of teachers in their classrooms, watching for tone, how you say something, everything down to your facial expressions.”
“The point I’m most interested in is that we need to make sure we’re preparing our teachers to effectively teach and portray positive attitudes in the classroom,” Beilock says. She hopes the study draws attention to the need for the next generation of elementary school teachers to be aware of their potential to negatively influence students and reinforce gender roles at such a formative age.