No Child Is Incapable Of Math, And Other Lessons I Learned As A Teacher

Oh, and gender has nothing to do with STEM aptitude.

As a passionate STEM educator, I have had the good fortune of teaching kids with diverse backgrounds, spanning a huge spectrum of ages, from preschoolers to adults pursuing masters' degrees in engineering. And trust me, teaching each age group has been a challenge in itself, and I have learnt a lot along the way.

I have had the support of some brilliant teachers, and each day I aspire to be like them. Teachers who are adored by children, teachers who create magic in their classrooms, teachers who persevere, who give a part of themselves every time they teach. These teachers strive for excellence, and tirelessly work towards making every student in their class understand and experience the joy in learning.

And in this journey, I have learnt a few things that I would like to share with you. Of course, your opinions may differ from mine, be sure to tell me yours!

1. I am yet to find a student who is completely incapable of doing math

I make this statement after having taught math to children who were just about making it through school. I also need to mention, none of these kids had any learning disabilities, so I cannot make such a claim for children with disabilities. You see, while math is essential to every human being's existence, it it cannot be taught to every child the same way. Some have a natural ability with numbers, others, who are visual learners, need the aid of a lot of manipulatives in order to get the hang of things. These kids will test your patience, but they will also enhance your ability to teach in creative ways, making use of every resource that you have at your disposal, be it an educational toy or a grocery item. And trust me, it works. Patience, perseverance and creativity.

If a student doesn't solve a problem using the exact methods taught in class, his solution is deemed incorrect. I see this as a limitation of the teacher...

And gender definitely puts no limits on one's math abilities. The brightest mathematical brain that I taught belongs to a girl who would often stump me with questions that were much beyond her peers, and definitely motivated me to be better prepared for next day's lecture.

2. Children are pure gold, but parents often falter at giving them the right direction

All the children that I have ever taught were pure gold. I never had problems teaching even the most "wayward" of them. Eventually, if the child feels safe, and you have been successful in igniting the spark, they all come around and enthusiastically question, ponder, deduce. It is a magical feeling when this starts happening.

But, what has often put me off is the attitude of the parents. Some are too busy leading their own lives to show any interest in their child's. Others think that they are doing the teacher a favour by paying her fees, and believe their duty ends there. Then there are parents who are not open to taking feedback from teachers, or spending quality time with their kids.

And here's the irony: I have seen children from families where both parents are working full-time, families with discord, families facing financial and medical adversities, and yet at least one of the parents makes an effort to be present for the child, to raise him/her right. And I have seen children from houses where at least one of the parents is at home, apparently "taking care" of the kids, and yet they are emotionally and mentally absent from their kids' lives. They are failing as parents despite being physically present. One time, an angry, filthy rich mother called and threatened me for not fudging her son's attendance. He had attended a total of four classes in five months, and without a valid reason for his absence, was ineligible to take end-semester exams. If I had any thoughts about trying to reason with or help this kid out, they were immediately quashed after his mother's phone call. This mother had never taught her son to be responsible or accountable. He could get away with anything.

I have seen children from houses where at least one of the parents is at home, apparently "taking care" of the kids, and yet they are emotionally and mentally absent...

All learning begins at home, and parents are the role models that the child looks up to. Some parents spoil their kids by being too permissive, while some others mess them up by being too authoritarian, and pushing them to meet unrealistic expectations. With such parents, the loser is always the child.

3. Grandparents are invaluable

Grandparents are awesome. They have so many stories to tell, they are reservoirs of wisdom, they make sure that the child is well fed, and they love the child to bits. When grandparents are present in the house, there is also a certain degree of tradition followed, the child is probably getting exposed to more than one functional language, and the parents are also behaving better to make sure that the grandparents stay happy. Not only this, the child is learning valuable life lessons just by observing the adult interactions, and will probably look after you in your old age if you are doing a good job looking after your own parents.

Also, in cases where both parents are working, the parents find it far easier and much less guilt-inducing to leave the kids in the care of their family members rather than at a daycare or with domestic staff. It's a win-win for everyone. Of course there will be an occasional squabble, but that too is important. Children will learn the importance of making up after a fight, and not just giving up on people they love.

4. The best gift to your child is inculcating a habit of reading

Surround your child with books. Read to your unborn child, read to your newborn, get picture books for your pre-schooler, and gift encyclopaedias on birthdays. The single- most important habit that children who excel have? They read!

The single-most important habit that children who excel have? They read!

Reading makes sure your child has above-average vocabulary, is exposed to various cultures and points of view, and they have a safe place to turn to when the world around them feels dark. In my experience, such children are less likely to indulge in drugs and alcohol, or show anti-social behaviour. In addition, when presented with a question that they do not know the answer to, they will use their knowledge of words to figure out what a scientific term should mean, and fill in the gaps of their understanding to arrive at the correct explanation.

5. Encourage your child to ask questions

Asking questions is a great sign. It means that your child is inquisitive, and wants to understand before he learns. Encourage this habit by taking the time out to give clear, scientific, age-appropriate answers. Also, ask relevant questions yourselves. Encourage your child to look for answers instead of handing them out. Convert them into small quests and reward them suitably. Positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement.

6. If your child's school doesn't encourage lateral thinking, consider shifting

Many teachers, especially in India, have an extremely bookish approach to problem solving. If a student doesn't solve a problem using the exact methods taught in class, his solution is deemed incorrect. I see this as a limitation of the teacher and not as the student's failure. A teacher must take the time to analyse a student's approach to problem solving, laud him if he has invented a creative way of doing it, or patiently explain to him why it wouldn't work in all situations.

So many lateral thinkers keep getting branded as errant folks who can't do anything right, whereas they are brilliant people using new ideas to solve old problems.

We, as teachers, need to encourage a spirit of enquiry and build an enthusiasm towards problem solving. So many lateral thinkers keep getting branded as errant folks who can't do anything right, whereas they are brilliant people using new ideas to solve old problems.

7. Aim for mastery, not marks

In a talk that should be a benchmark for all educators, Sal Khan points out how in our quest for completing syllabi and fetching marks, we do not wait to see if each student has actually grasped the concepts. We keep trying to build advanced concepts on weak foundations, thus bringing the whole structure down. This encourages sub-standard ways of getting marks, like rote-learning, and also results in an inaccurate assessment of a child's true potential. When we aim to teach for mastery, we are actually helping each student realise his/her true potential, and also evaluate their understanding correctly.

8. All work and no play makes kids dull

I cannot emphasise enough the role that sports and extra-curricular activities play in the all-round development of your child. Apart from keeping your child in good shape, they also ensure mental-emotional well-being right through adulthood. If your child's school doesn't offer enough options, make sure you enrol him or her in a couple of classes. But don't over-burden the kids, or else they might begin to detest the hectic routine.

9. Restrict your child's access to technology

In a world full of TV, internet, and smartphones, it is easy for us to lose track of how much time our kids are spending on them. Keep their usage as minimal as possible. Instead, channelise their energies into doing something more creative, more physical. Take the time out to play games with them, talk to them and understand them, so that they do not themselves feel the need to take the help of these things to get through life.

10. Allow your child some down time and independent space

Children must be left alone for a while each day so that they can discover their own creative worlds, their natural inclinations and hobbies, and generally try to figure things out on their own. Helicopter parents often cause a lot of harm to their kids by not allowing them to face reality and also thrusting too much of their own will on children. Your aim should be to raise kids who can shine on their own in this big bad world rather than academically bright but dysfunctional adults.

Children are little marvels who teach us something new each day we spend with them. When provided with love and the right direction, you will be amazed at all the things they can do. And it's never too late to start trying. Just watch the wonders happen.