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JTE Author: Teacher Preparation Programs Must Do More to Alleviate Teachers’ Math Anxiety

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Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the following interview with the author of a recent article. This blog is available to the public, and AACTE members have free access to the articles themselves in the full JTE archives online – just log in with your AACTE profile here.

This interview features insights from the article “Preservice to In-Service: Does Mathematics Anxiety Change With Teaching Experience?” by Gina Gresham of the University of Central Florida. The article, which appears in the January-February issue of JTE, is summarized in the following abstract:

In-service teachers, participants in a prior study on mathematics anxiety, were revisited to determine whether their levels of mathematics anxiety still existed and/or continued to change after 5 years’ teaching experience. A 98-item Likert-type survey, informal discussions, informal interviews, and questionnaire-guided narrative interviews were conducted. Data revealed that all in-service teachers still experienced some degree of mathematics anxiety (p < .001). Results have implications for teacher education programs concerning the continued professional support of teachers, measurement of mathematics anxiety levels among pre- and in-service teachers, and the determination of specific contexts in which mathematics anxiety can be interpreted and reduced.

Q: What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

A: “Walk a mile in my shoes and you’ll understand!” Not only have I heard this before, but I have personal experience as it relates to mathematics anxiety and mathematics teaching efficacy. I too experienced severe mathematics anxiety but thought it would not affect my students or my teaching. I was dead wrong! It deeply affected my teaching and my students. In addition, I learned that most of my colleagues experienced the same thoughts. As a professor of both undergraduate and graduate teachers, I know it exists in others, and I have heard their calls for help. Therefore, research including ways to offer solutions, reduction, and/or understanding of mathematics anxiety is critical to successful teaching and improving mathematics teacher efficacy.

Q: Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

A: Yes! As a preservice and in-service teacher I have personally felt what it is like to have mathematics anxiety. Sometimes we develop a passion for something that happens in our lives generating a personal experience with the situation. I think it means more to my preservice teacher students when I can say “I know what you are experiencing” and be able to offer and include situations and helpful responses or ideas to help. In addition, the U.S. mathematics test scores are critically low and it isn’t pretty. Students’ low mathematics test scores are a direct result of our ineffective teaching practices and a lack of teachers’ mathematics content knowledge. This is not acceptable and is a direct result of our teacher education programs. We are making headway but it is slow.

Q: What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

A: As expressed in [the teachers’] thoughts, some were a little hesitant in revealing their true feelings about their anxiety and in not being competent with mathematical content. Many were fearful they would be “outed” by colleagues or students. However, once they knew they were not alone, they wanted as much help as possible. They felt that once they were in the classroom their mathematics anxiety would suddenly disappear, but in some cases, it became more severe. Those who received master’s degrees did see changes in their mathematics anxiety and shared why they saw a change. Those who had no master’s degree wanted help but only as a quick-fix medication. Obviously, that is not feasible.

Q: Writing, by necessity, requires leaving certain things on the cutting room floor. What didn’t make it into the article that you want to talk about?

A: Preservice teachers believe that mathematics anxiety is going to disappear miraculously once they become in-service. It is truly worrisome that preservice teachers are graduating with high levels of mathematics anxiety because it does not simply “go away because I graduated.” Evidence shows they will avoid teaching the subject or will not teach it effectively due to their lack of mathematical fluency and anxiety. This only creates a cycle as mathematics anxiety is passed on to their students.

Q: What current areas of research are you pursuing?

A: This 5-year study was just completed, and now the 10-, 15-, and 20-year studies begins with the same group. I am maintaining yearly contact with each. Some are expressing teacher burnout, so that is extremely bothersome. For those in-service teachers, I am offering opportunities for professional workshops including open discussion and lesson plan ideas.

In addition, I just completed two new research projects:

  • A multiple-case study with early childhood/elementary preservice teachers involving their mathematics anxiety, mathematics teacher efficacy, and self-efficacy that is scheduled for publication in 2018.
  • A 3-year project involving preservice/in-service teachers’ mathematics anxiety and self-efficacy and how it relates to teaching in high-risk and low-risk schools.

Q: What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

A: The biggest challenge I see is that technology is forging ahead with intense fury! With that, our culture has an expectation for immediate answers and/or results. Face-to-face teaching and communication is leaving us as a direct result. Individuals want online courses to save time. However, I do not feel that elementary mathematics courses should be delivered online. Mathematics anxiety will only increase as a direct result of this. Students need to be actively involved and engaged in the mathematics experience. Discourse with peers and the instructor should be mainstream, manipulatives and hands-on strategies must be included and activated, and effective mathematics lessons must be modeled and implemented. From my research, my direct communication with those who have graduated from online course programs have expressed much regret because they do not feel adequately prepared for the mathematics classroom.

Q: What advice would you give to new scholars in teacher education?

A: Find what you are passionate about now, as it will define you as a researcher. You will be writing about it for a long time and much discussion will evolve throughout your career. I think it adds more credibility to your work to have a personal experience with what you are researching. Also, believe in yourself and in what you are researching. I always knew I had personal issues with mathematics anxiety but had no way to resolve or address them. In addition, sometimes just because we want to research does not mean we will get the answers we want. Nor will it generate the response we had hoped. I found early on that some researchers did not appreciate teacher education research. For a while, many journals would not consider publishing it. Thankfully, there are journals that have seen the need for such research and appreciate the results it generates!

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