Let me in Math, Let me in! Let me in!

Dr. Foss: What are you in for

Student: I need the key to this gate

Dr. Foss: Oh, you mean the gate that only opens if you fit all of the ridiculous criteria and come from a place of privilege?

Student: Yes! I need to get through! Can’t you see the opportunity waiting over there?

Dr. Foss: Yeah…sorry, can’t help you. I don’t have the key either.

Gate Keepers Gonna Keep

At what point in your math education did you know where you fit?

You know what I mean. Was it in elementary school when you won the flashcard race? Or in middle school when you were publicly shamed for not knowing an answer? Did you skate through high school thanks to the answers in the back of the book or did you have to hide your love for math to keep your social status?

The subject of math is often considered a “gate keeper.” Only letting through the students who are most “qualified” and leaving the rest of us on the other side of the gate wondering why we aren’t good enough.

The Math Gate Keepers Start Early

Can’t count to 10? Not ready for Kindergarten.

Didn’t pass the state standardized test in 3rd grade? Retention.

Struggle to understand fractions in 5th grade? Below Level Instruction.

Didn’t understand your homework in middle school? Lunch Detention.

Below average in 8th grade math? Remediation course as a Freshman.

Oh, you still don’t understand? All aboard the low track train for the rest of your life.

The Math Gate Keepers Are Liars

Some people make it through a gate or two. Feeling pretty good about themselves they confidently sprint toward the next gate (insert middle school, geometry, calculus, etc…) only to be clotheslined. Stunned and embarrassed they stand up, turn around, and walk in the other direction assuming that they aren’t “good at math” after all.

Others breeze through every gate and continue to believe the lies. They have found the keys and continue to believe that math must be about getting the right answers. They get the right answer so that must mean they are smart. Those who don’t make it through? Well, maybe they aren’t smart? No, no, that would be unkind to say. Maybe they just aren’t a “math person”. Lies. All lies.

Too many of us are stopped at the gate early in life. Fed the lies about what it means to be “good at math” and over time come to terms with the fact that it is just not for us. We are just not good enough, smart enough, enough enough. We are limited by the lies we believe about our own ability.

The sky is the limit! Really? We all do live under the same sky, correct? So, if the sky really is the limit why is it so much lower for some? The Math Gatekeepers determine the limits of your sky. Yeah, I know. Rude. As a student I learned very early that my limits were low. I struggled HARD in math. I learned that understanding math was synonymous with being smart and drew my own conclusions. I failed my Kindergarten screening, was almost retained in 8th grade, sat through all of my high school courses with underclassmen, and didn’t make it into my college of choice. I ended up needing to buy my way into a private college (still paying those loans btw) and ended up at the top of my class, graduating with a 4.0 in Elementary Education. Ha! I had tricked them. Those damn math gatekeepers couldn’t keep me down! Or could they? Despite my success as an undergrad I was secretly terrified to teach above 2nd grade. The fractions! The multiplication facts! The horror!

Fast forward 18 years and I somehow managed to become a Doctor of Education (long story) and have dedicated my career to (of all things) MATH! That being said, the ghosts of those gatekeepers still haunt me. Not a day goes by where I don’t wonder when I am going to be found out. When I don’t worry that my colleagues are going to realize how unqualified I am. Even after 10 years of math coaching and curriculum writing I still start to sweat when asked to “math” in public and will never be able to remember the answer to 6×8 without a minor panic attack (even though now I know I can use 6×6 + 6×2 instead).

Moral of the story is this: Math can either limit us or make our options limitless. Remove the gates. Remove the stigma. Remove the false narratives. Let’s stop using math as one more way to segregate and separate. Let’s stop using math as a measure of how white and male someone is. Let’s stop using math to determine students worth, ability, and future.

Math for everyone. Period.

2 thoughts on “Let me in Math, Let me in! Let me in!

    1. Damn. Must not be an easy crowd to sell math to. Think of the thousands of negative experiences that your students have probably had in math. All it takes is one opportunity to feel successful though. Most likely your students are all convinced that they can’t… so prove them wrong.


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