A new study suggests that elementary school may be a breeding ground for this anxiety. The study found that when elementary school teachers, who are primarily female, displayed a high level of anxiety about math, that skittishness was transmitted to their female students. Those students who spent a year with a math-phobic teacher displayed lower math achievement and an increased belief in stereotypes about female mathematical ability.
As the authors note, anxiety about doing math, particularly in a public forum such as calculating the tip for a restaurant check, has long been known to be an impediment to math performance, independent of quantitative skill. Elementary education majors have been found to be particularly afraid of math—more so than any other college major—but often have little chance to overcome this fear because the math requirements of their programs are usually minimal.
The study was somewhat limited in scope, as it didn’t look at the effects of all possible gender combinations of teachers and students. There may be, for example, a positive and encouraging relationship between male elementary school teachers and their male students, but the low population of male elementary school teachers (less than 10 percent) makes this hard to study. Females are also more socially conscious than males, so male students’ abilities may be more resilient in the face of a math-anxious male teacher.
The fact that over 90 percent of elementary school teachers are female, combined with the high level of math anxiety that many of them transfer to their students, doesn’t bode well for girls’ future in math. The study’s authors acknowledge that the effect was not staggering, and there’s plenty of room for influence by other female role models in the students’ lives, such as mothers or siblings. Still, the work suggests that when it comes to math, elementary school teachers need, at the very least, to put on a much braver face before they do a math problem on the chalk board.
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