Confidence in the Math Classroom

by Jill O’Loughlin

Which feeling is worse?

Standing at the front of a classroom that is a sea of blank stares when you have just asked a math question


Sitting in a math class feeling completely lost, not only unable to find the answer to the problem, but not even knowing where to begin to make sense of the question

The Impact of the Imposter Syndrome

I think we can all agree the two choices above are both disappointing scenarios, and that most likely we have experienced each at least once in our own school journey or in our careers as educators. I have experienced both sides of the blank student stare that actually is rarely empty at all. Often it is shrouding insidious, swelling panic.

As a student, I remember feeling hopelessly lost while the teacher and rest of the class were leaving me in the dust. I assume that everyone has experienced this feeling as a student at some point (or at least that’s what I’d tell myself to make me feel better). I hated that feeling. It made me feel inferior. I felt like I had stumbled into the wrong class, like I lacked whatever x-factor it is that made the math lesson click with everyone else around me. My anxiety distracted me, and I would become even more disconnected from what was happening at the front of the classroom. I was a lone floating lifeboat, watching my mothership sail forward while I drifted further and further away.

Now, when I’m facing the landscape of faraway glazed-over eyes and downright confused furrowed brows in my classroom, I feel like I’m not being effective as a teacher. The same shadow of inadequacy I felt as a student—drowning in digits and figures and mysterious terms like “reciprocals”—has rebranded itself and is now eclipsing my confidence in my identity as a teacher. I know my school is relying on me to make a difference for the students, and that the learners have come to my class to gain more knowledge and understanding. I try to meet these expectations to the best of my ability. Yet, there are times when I feel like I’m completely fumbling everyone’s trust. The imposter syndrome, and its characteristic feelings of self-doubt and fear of letting others down, rears its ugly head. These feelings are difficult to shake off, especially when you fear that a failure on your part could negatively impact your program’s enrollment retention numbers and test scores. While teaching and learning in adult education are uniquely human experiences there’s no denying that it’s often the impersonal dry data that can jeopardize the funding and very existence of a program.

Foreign Universal Language

Math is sometimes called a universal language. However, it can feel helplessly foreign for learners. No one wants to feel lost. I frequently tell my students to not be afraid to speak up when I am going too fast or they aren’t sure about something. I tell students that if they are feeling confused, others probably are, too. Quick checks for understanding during the lesson are like miniscule formative assessments. I frequently pause my math instruction to ask students, “Do you want to practice this concept with another problem before we build on it further?”. Verbal responses are great, though even silence can be a helpful indicator of whether or not to keep moving along or to circle back and review.

Seeking a verbal confirmation of student understanding or confusion can be helpful, though as a once-struggling student myself I understand that revealing you’re not keeping up with the teacher is easier said than done. It also feels unfair to put the responsibility of pacing the lesson on the students willing to admit that they’re feeling lost in class. In addition to verbal confirmations throughout the lesson, asking students to flash a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or thumbs-pointed-to-the-side based on how well they’re following the lesson can be a silent check in with the class as a whole. Many students are more comfortable responding this way due to the thumbs-to-the-side middle option. It seems less dichotomic than saying “Yes, I totally understand,” versus, “No, I don’t get this at all.” The Tell Me With Your Thumbs method is a great way to check in with less outspoken students.

Building Student (and Teacher!) Confidence

I recently participated in a professional development course offered by the SABES Math Center called Using The Math Proficiency Guide to Become A More Effective Math Teacher. This course detailed various ways to encourage learning and raise both teacher and student confidence surrounding math instruction. Practices that I learned from this course have already helped raise confidence in my classroom. Below are a few I’d like to share.

Classroom Configuration

The first recommendation for raising student engagement and comfort almost immediately is to arrange the classroom so students are sitting in small groups and are able to easily discuss the lesson and collaborate. It is reassuring for students when they can see each other and it helps

eliminate the tunnel-vision focus on the board and teacher at the front of the traditional classroom. This seating arrangement helps foster a “we’re-in-this-together” camaraderie and amplifies student voices.

Everyone Belongs Here

Being proactive about creating a sense of belonging in your classroom is very effective in curbing a feeling of isolation for students. Diversity should always be celebrated. Student voices and perspectives should be validated as being just as vital to class discussions as what the teacher has to say. Some of the most informative conversations that take place in my classroom are when students discuss various ways that they’ve learned to do a math operation in other math classes. It is also crucial to compare math notation and vocabulary from students’ countries of origin. Pausing instruction to facilitate these discussions is beneficial in helping students access prior knowledge of a math topic. It also helps students apply previous knowledge to the math lesson, even if the content seemed unfamiliar at first.

Always Acknowledge Effort

Instructors should always emphasize and honor student effort, even if a student hasn’t found the answer yet. When a student offers an answer that isn’t the one that the problem is looking for, give the student the space and time to explain his or her thinking. Being non-judgmental as you ask students to explain how they arrive at their answers leaves room for you to praise their thought process and effort along the way, regardless of whether the answer is correct. This helps to validate students and highlight their reasoning skills, which are much more important in the long run for exams than just being able to deliver a right answer without thinking critically. After a student explains his or her thinking while solving the problem, teachers can ask further guiding questions, although many times another student will jump in to explain the problem and advance classroom discussion.

Confidence is the Key

The SABES course Using The Math Proficiency Guide to Become A More Effective Math Teacher provided examples of how teachers can implement these practices in their classes to increase the sense of belonging among their students. When diversity is celebrated, voices are validated, and inclusion is prioritized, students will feel a stronger ownership of their own learning journeys. I highly recommend this course and the many others on the SABES Calendar for building your own professional confidence and as a result the confidence of the students in your classroom. We all feel insecurity from time to time. As instructors, we have the unique perspective of knowing what it’s like to feel insecure as both a math learner and a math teacher. The key to more effective math teaching to me means raising confidence in my classroom, beginning with my students. After all, when my students feel more self-assured, as a teacher I feel more confident in my abilities, too.

Our special guest blogger, Jill O’Loughlin, is an instructor at an adult education program in Central Massachusetts.