Posted by: rdkpickle | 02.21.2016

an evolution of my reaction to other people’s reactions when they learn i am a math teacher

It used to drive me absolutely crazy. In moving to a brand new city and starting my career 7 years ago, I met a lot of strangers – introductions to friends of friends, crossing paths with other young people enjoying a night out in the city, striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to me on the Metro, etc. And inevitably when the conversation turned to “what do you do?” my response always seemed to elicit a similar series of reactions.

“I’m a teacher.” “Oh really? What grade?” (The assumption there being that I teach elementary school.) “High school.” “Oh! What subject?” “Math.”

Then it was one of a few things, most of which basically boiled down to this: “My math teachers didn’t look like you.”

I struggled with how quick I was to get offended by the immediate assumption that I taught younger grades – I can’t imagine many jobs more necessary, important, difficult, and physically/emotionally demanding than teaching elementary school (I certainly couldn’t do it), and yet that reaction always made me feel undervalued, somehow. In early years, it felt like a comment on my intelligence or capability – and I almost enjoyed the chance to “earn some credibility” by throwing my teaching of math in their face. But, inevitably, responding this way always made me feel like part of the problem.

I struggled with the way my woman-ness, and often my specific physical appearance, was commented upon – as though it is inherently strange or special for a young woman to have a passion for mathematics and still look like a woman. Men usually take it to a really uncomfortable place – “If I had a teacher like you, I wouldn’t have been able to focus in class.” “How do you handle the teenage boys in your class?” “I bet all of your male students have a crush on you.” I still have no scripted reaction to this category of remarks. It always leaves me feeling small, uncomfortable.

Often the person doing the reacting really meant whatever they were trying to say as a compliment of sorts. Other women, especially, are quick to move the conversation into a space where they can share their own discomfort or perceived limitations with mathematics, and express genuine regret that they didn’t have the opportunity to see it as an area of study that was open to them. I am developing a better understanding of how my presence in the classroom as a woman who teaches math has an impact on the way my students imagine both mathematics and mathematicians. But that’s not something I did, it’s just something I am. It’s something that (perhaps naively) only really became apparent to me as an important part of my work in the classroom once I started teaching. When someone thanks me for being a “role model,” I can speak with passion about working with young women as they develop the mathematical abilities within them, but I always feel a bit confused about what, exactly, I’m being thanked for.

When it comes to the “math” part of my math teacher identity – yes – it’s really important to make it possible for young women to see a future for themselves in these traditionally male-dominated STEM fields. (Not to mention – all of the desperately necessary work we have to do in allowing other marginalized groups access to these careers as well.) Representation is a big part of that. Being proud of my genuine, nerdy love of math and finding a comfortable home for that alongside my identity as a woman is significant. And yet, I worry that as we fight for greater access for women to male dominated spaces, we’re only fighting half the battle unless we simultaneously begin to value more greatly the work being done by those in traditionally female careers, like teaching. Why is it it that the praise for my work as a math teacher so often only focuses on the “math” piece?

I’m reminded of this really fantastic article from a year back, “Why I Am Not a Maker”

“I am not a maker. In a framing and value system that is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year. That’s because all of the actual change, the actual effects, are at the interface between me as an educator, my students, and the learning experiences I design for them. People have happily informed me that I am a maker because I use phrases like “design learning experiences,” which is mistaking what I do (teaching) for what I’m actually trying to help elicit (learning). To characterize what I do as “making” is to mistake the methods—courses, workshops, editorials—for the effects. Or, worse, if you say that I “make” other people, you are diminishing their agency and role in sense-making, as if their learning is something I do to them.


A quote often attributed to Gloria Steinem says: ‘We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.’ Maker culture, with its goal to get everyone access to the traditionally male domain of making, has focused on the first. But its success means that it further devalues the traditionally female domain of caregiving, by continuing to enforce the idea that only making things is valuable. Rather, I want to see us recognize the work of the educators, those that analyze and characterize and critique, everyone who fixes things, all the other people who do valuable work with and for others—above all, the caregivers—whose work isn’t about something you can put in a box and sell.”

Last night was just a typical social Saturday night out, and over the course of the evening I had several chances to practice a range of reactions to others’ reactions as they found out I teach math. It’s still a work in progress.


  1. Thank you for posting this! I have often been irritated by people’s reactions to finding out I’m a math teacher (when I was) but didn’t pause long enough to sit with that feeling and decipher some of the things you’re identifying. I was recently in a conversation with someone about the difference between making and crafting– how one is venerated and innovative and male, the other is easily dismissed as traditional and female.

    Your comment about “throwing my teaching of math in their face” makes me think of Mitsuye Yamada’s piece, “Invisibility is an unnatural disaster,” where she writes about sometimes feeling as if resisting the stereotypes by being the opposite is already enough of a fight. (She then goes on to say she feels it is not enough, but) that is something I have often felt in my woman-ness but also in my other identities.

    But I am actually most curious about what you didn’t write– what were some of the reactions you were trying out, and what reactions did your reactions elicit?

    • Hi Grace – thanks for stopping by my blog. 🙂 I love the quote you shared in your second paragraph. The idea of resisting stereotypes by being the opposite has always troubled me, too, in the way that it feels just as constricting in terms of who we are allowing ourselves to be.

      My reactions yesterday were a mixed bag. I’d like to say I usually do as k8 suggested on twitter and ask questions that back people into their own (often flawed or sexist) thinking. But – sometimes I don’t have the energy, like last night in my cab ride when the driver told me that my teenaged male students surely weren’t able to focus on much math in my class, and I just got quiet and laughed nervously. At dinner I listened to a woman share her deep shame and regret at avoiding math because it wasn’t a strength for her, and she got enough messaging that it wasn’t something she wasn’t supposed to care about that she ended up cheating her way through her high school class. I mostly just listened. I tried to acknowledge that we all have innate mathematical ability, and that it’s not too late for her to unlock some of that. That her current passions align more closely with that field than she might realize. That she can let go of that shame. And I try to talk about what I love about math – the creativity, the endless questioning, the collaborative human thrill I feel when I solve a great problem. I don’t know if any of these things work. What I do know, is my reactions feel and sound a lot different than they did even 3 or 4 years ago.

  2. OH! This is SO GOOD! Like the best thing I’ve read this year.

    I have to run do a family thing so I can’t say more now. But I couldn’t walk away without commenting at all.

  3. Love this!

  4. People are pretty dumb really. I used to get a lot of “Ooh, you must be brainy” and “I was never any good at maths” type comments, followed by a silence while they pondered on what to say next. You are just getting it worse.
    The classification into “maker” and “the others” is very simple minded. Lawyers don’t make anything other than money. I suspect that people who call themselves “makers” are actually ib charge, as managers, of a bunch of people whose job is to tell another bunch of people which buttons to press.
    As for Gloria Steinem – like the curate’s egg, good in parts.

  5. […] found this personal story from a high school math teacher to be a very interesting read.  The post outlines the constant […]

  6. Spot on! I got so tired of other people’s reactions to my career that I started making up other careers during small-talk events like parties. It was just easier that way… if I tell people I’m in sales or I’m a spy or whatever, they don’t experience any math anxiety and feel the need to rush away from the conversation. Sigh.
    The sexism implicit in most responses (“Math? But you’re a woman…”) also tires me. I have no polite response for this anymore. Any clever ideas of how to reflect people’s bias back at them without being over-the-top feminist?

    On the other side of the double-edged-sword (the one where we are judged for not being smart enough) I had a lovely conversation last year with a computer science professor at a local university:

    Prof: “You’re a teacher? Ah yes, well… those who can’t do, teach.”
    Me: “Oh, I think you misunderstand. That is what I do – I teach.”

    • Nice one !
      Alternatively “That makes two of us”

  7. Rachel, I also got these types of comments as a female software engineer. Sometimes it’s hard to be in a male dominated field and noticed as “other.” But my reaction was more positive than yours. It made me feel attractive and smart, which are both nice acknowledgements. It’s also nice to feel like perhaps you are making strides for your gender. Thanks for doing such valuable work!

  8. […] an evolution of my reaction to other people’s reactions when they learn i am a math teacher &#821… […]

  9. […] of identities students develop, both in our classrooms, and long into life. So when you think about those reactions you get from people when you say you’re a math teacher, that’s been carried with them into their […]

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