My teacher thought I was a dunce

Mar 22, 2015 • Belinda Weaver

I attended an all girls school where I excelled at languages and history but was consistently weak in maths. My father was a wizard at maths and my older sister and brother were A students in maths, but I was a B student at best, and I always had to struggle to keep up. I was able to do this until Grade 10 (Junior), but in the final two years of school (Senior), I got lost and have stayed lost ever since. This was largely because of the teaching, which was very poor.

My teacher for Senior maths was a woman who had never taught maths at Senior level before. She was learning as we went along, which did not help, as she did not have sufficient grasp of the material to make it intelligible to me. She had been my teacher for Junior maths, and had consistently favoured a group of girls in the class - calling on them for answers, holding them up as models, while ignoring other students. I might as well have been invisible and inaudible. She was just not interested in me. If I tried to get assistance, she made me feel bad, or blamed me for not catching on quickly enough.

I did try, but the combination of her inability to teach well, the sense of falling further and further behind, the lack of help, my sense of not being one of the favoured few, and the lack of any context that would have made things like algebra and trigonometry meaningful to me meant that I just stopped trying. When I sat for the final exam, I wrote my name on the exam paper and walked out - I didn’t even attempt to answer a single question. I had given up.

Looking back, I can see that the teacher was probably very insecure about her own abilities, and may have been incapable of explaining the things I had difficulties with. She could presumably follow the textbook and hope that people understood, but she did not have the depth of knowledge that would have enabled her to provide context, relate the learning to practical uses in daily life, and engage with my difficulties. Instead of being motivated to try to teach myself how to do maths, I just became demoralised and focused instead on the subjects I was good at.

The school should have got a better teacher, but they did not. Some students remedied the situation by hiring a special tutor. I had a couple of sessions with him and started to make real progress, but my parents could not afford to keep paying him, so I fell behind again. The fact that the school did not recognise that the hiring of a special tutor showed something seriously wrong with the teaching was a failing on their part. But they should have acknowledged that there was a problem, instead of leaving people to flounder, and making it their fault.

It is a lifelong regret of mine that I was made to feel like a dunce at maths. The experience with the tutor showed that I could learn when well taught, but the combination of an exclusive and blaming environment, the lack of context and meaning, and my own inability to see what maths could do for me, meant that I did not see it as a valued goal.