This is why middle school math is so important

For my day job, I am a middle school math and science teacher.

Wait, don’t stop reading just yet. This is not another piece made for teachers to feel better about ourselves and what we do. And it’s not a professional development piece. I mean, if you are a math teacher, you might feel better after reading this, but even if you are not a teacher, please hear me out and read further. This is also important if you are a parent, a non-parent, a voter, or even a middle school student.

We are in the midst of a global crisis unlike anything I ever imagined would happen. It’s funny, because during my darker days of teaching (back when I was newer to the profession and massively overwhelmed by the pressures of teaching, the emotional weight of it, the hours, etc), I used to sort of fantasize that there might be some weird crisis that would force schools to close for an extended period, like over a month. Some massive blizzard, or some crazy influenza outbreak, where we’d all have to go home and not come back until we were all refreshed and lonely from isolation. It’s odd this fantasy came true during a time when I teach surrounded by supportive, friendly colleagues and am supervised by understanding, encouraging leaders who recognize exactly how hard this job is. My dark days of teaching are long gone, but here I am this week, waking up not at the crack of dawn and the grating sound of an alarm, but as the sun tickles my eyelids after a relatively complete night of sleep. I’m not yanking myself out of bed to get everything I need to get done before my 26 minute commute to work where I typically have students waiting for me to unlock my door. No, I get up when I want to, I go for a run, feed myself breakfast, and deliver my instruction online these days. I plan future lessons while grading assignments and communicating with my students over the internet throughout the day. It’s still proving to be hard, sometimes awkward and clumsy work, but now that I get a full night’s sleep (and can allow myself a trip to the bathroom any time I feel the need), my day is carried out with better precision, smarter decision making on my part, and more energy to devote to instruction and interacting with my students. I am learning from this experience.

But that’s not what this is about either. This is not an editorial about how we can learn from this weird hardship forced upon us by necessity. I mean we can; this is a problem we are tackling head-on, but that’s secondary to my real point.

There are two parts to this global crisis we’re in, as I see it. One is the pandemic. We must socially distance ourselves so that we can stop the rapid spread of a deadly pandemic that is likely to overwhelm our hospitals and health system. That’s pretty major, indeed.
But the other global crisis is one that is more prone to certain societies, and that is the phenomenon of willful ignorance. So many in the world, and in America in particular, literally chose the path of ignorance over knowledge and preparedness as the pandemic unfolded. Instead of learning about the situation and taking precautions, many decided to turn away from it, pretend it wasn’t real, and gawk at the “panic,” as if the threat of hospitals not being able to treat hundreds of thousands, even millions, of deathly ill patients was not worthy of concern. For some, it is as if it was all a hoax. That is a crisis within a crisis, right there, one that actually makes the other worse.

But wait, what about the middle school math part? The title of this piece includes the words “Middle School Math” and “Important,” and if that isn’t a masterful hook designed to draw a reader in, I don’t know what is. What in heck does middle school math have to do with a global crisis like this, and more importantly, how is it important? You’ve probably always wanted to know this.

I get this question a lot, actually, from my students, most often in the form of, “When am I actually ever going to use this in real life?” I’ve been teaching for fourteen years, so I have a bounty of beautifully composed answers to this well rehearsed in my head, but I’m not going to go there.

See, math causes a lot of people loads of anxiety, as it rightly should, because math is about solving problems, and solving problems is often difficult and stressful. Math, for many, is like the dark side of learning. “Omg,” young people think to themselves, “there are all these numbers and letters and an equal sign and operations and have LITERALLY NO IDEA what is going on or what to do!” Panic sets in, and they turn away. “Maybe I ought to do my social studies assignment instead.” Ancient Egypt can seem a little more palatable than, say, analyzing proportional relationships or solving linear equations.

Luckily, human brains are actually drawn toward solving problems, or else we would not have done so well as a species on the whole.

Math is not numbers, it is not recognizing patterns, or performing operations, or utilizing formulae or measuring unit rates. Math is about proofs. Math is about confidence. It is about being creative, thinking outside the box, learning from your mistakes, seeking evidence, and getting your feet wet. It is problem solving. Period.

The very worst thing a math teacher can ever hear a parent say during a student-led conference is, “Well, it’s ok, I was never a math person either, I guess it just runs in the family.”

That is a lie.

We are all math people. We all must solve problems. Middle school math might seem like an endless sequence of weird and other-worldly tasks, but every one of those tasks, whether it is designed to reflect a “real world” type scenario or not, is an exercise in tackling something challenging, something that might be difficult. We math teachers actually create intentionally difficult situations for our students to encounter and stumble through! We want you to make mistakes and try desperately to figure out what the heck you did wrong. We will help guide you, but we really want you to struggle first, to wrestle with it. We want you to take every piece of information that you know and employ it in order to understand as completely as possible what it is you need to do in order to come to a solution. And then when you come to a solution, we want you to feel completely confident by actually proving that your solution is the right one.

So here’s why middle school math is so important. It’s important because people who don’t take it seriously tend to continue to struggle in high school math. They give up. They get someone else to do it for them, or they resort to failing or just getting by enough to receive a passing grade. And then they rely on other people to do the math for them for the rest of their lives.

Of course the above happens to many, many Americans, to varying degrees. America is widely known around the world as a country that, considering its wealth and excess of resources, has uncannily low math scores and an even more bizarrely wide range of math ability among adults. But why is that? Humans are designed to problem solve, and math is literally all about problem solving. Who is out there convincing some of us NOT to problem solve?

I’ll leave it to the reader to determine who in our culture is discouraging problem solving, discrediting those who seek and provide evidence for a living before coming to conclusions, and sowing confusion while denying that certain problems are worthy of taking our time and effort to solve. The reader can consider who is trying to convince us to go against our human nature, to ignore the evidence, to deny the evidence, to pretend we’ve got it all under control, when in reality we desperately need all hands on deck.

Anyone who would attempt to steer us away from our natural tendency to problem solve is someone who clearly did not take middle school math seriously back in the day, for whatever reason.

Yes, I definitely feel good about my role in society. When I teach math and science, I am doing my best to ignite that part of our human nature to problem solve, and to seek evidence that will boost our confidence when we encounter something difficult. I do my best to make it fun, but the struggle is very, very real, and I want my students to know that. It absolutely is worth their time to do the research necessary to find a solution! I want them to be willing to make mistakes, and to be proud of their mistakes, rather than deny them. A problem should be a great, enticing mystery that drives us to seek the facts and tools we need to solve it.

Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.