Teacher bias in mathematics education

I stumbled across this article this morning on Slate.

It’s interesting from a personal perspective. I took Maths B (mid-level maths), Maths C (advanced-level maths), physics, chemistry, and a couple of other non-STEM subjects at high school level. This is more or less the equivalent of taking all of statistics, algebra, geometry, trig, pre-calc, calc over a 2 year period – the subjects in Australia are structured a little differently to the US.

Now, I had a teacher for the mid-level maths who was amazing. Honestly, probably the best teacher I ever had in high school.

Yet for the advanced maths and physics? I can completely understand where the article linked to above is coming from.

I got good grades in advanced maths and physics, sure. But they weren’t spectacular  by any means. Yet I get to university the following year, and I’m scoring HD’s (the equivalent of an A) in all my maths and physics classes? And the guys who were beating me in high school were struggling to even pass? At the time, I wondered if it was just because they were spending most of their time at university getting wasted. This article makes me wonder.

I’d had issues with my high school maths and physics teachers. I had a maths teacher who consistently made jokes at my expense because I was literally the only female in the advanced-level maths class. And I had a physics teacher who told me that the most I might amount to is actually being a secretary in a science lab somewhere (this was during a discussion I’d arranged with him over what I should consider majoring in at university the following year). Much to my amusement, years later at another university, I ran into this physics teacher. I was in the middle of my PhD, he’d obviously moved, and he was showing his senior class around the university on a campus visit. He remembered me and made some comment about him being right and me ending up as a secretary (I was in the school office at the time photocopying something). The look on his face when I told him that I was completing my PhD was priceless.

Additionally, I also had parents who didn’t really give a crap. I told them about my sexist physics teacher and their response was effectively “harden up princess”. They thought I should give up on my desire to go to university and “get a job”. My mother didn’t even want me to finish high school – as you can legally leave school after completing grade 10 in Australia (at least you could at that time) – she wanted me to quit school and go and get a job. I’m at least grateful that my father didn’t give in to her and encouraged me to finish school. But I had approximately zero support from my parents regarding any further education. The reality is that even now, with a PhD under my belt and a full-time research position at university, they still ask me when I’m planning on getting a “real job”. Not all parents have the same respect for education, and we need to accept that reality.

So look, I know some girls get discouraged by sexist teachers like the ones I had in high school. I didn’t. Some are discouraged by their family. I wasn’t. I used all of it as basically a giant “f*** you” to prove all of them wrong. While I unquestionably believe that steps need to be taken to mitigate gender bias in education, I also think that those who do face this bias need to take that anger and frustration and use it for something constructive. Don’t just sit on social media and whinge about it – prove them wrong! No, maybe you won’t graduate at the top of your class in high school. But if you’re smart, they can’t deny that, especially in the hard sciences and maths which are less subjective (even one of my favourite bloggers PZ Myers talks about this on Pharyngula), and you will still get into university. I won’t pretend that gender bias doesn’t exist at university, but there is much more recourse available to you if you do happen to come across it. It’s easier to fight it. No, you shouldn’t need to fight it, because it shouldn’t exist, but you can.

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5 thoughts on “Teacher bias in mathematics education

    • I wonder though, is it? I help out with tutoring for the freshman level maths at my university, and I’ve actually seen the number of females in those classes decreasing, not increasing.

      • When I was talking about gender, I was actually referring to the masculine n feminine energies, for which every human carries to varying degrees. The feminine traits (compassionate, intuitive,creative, right brain thinking) are increasing to balance the predominant masculine energy and are so evident in world news.;-)

      • Hmmm. Tangent – I identify as female, but exhibit very few of the traditionally female traits. I am far more masculine in that aspect. I wonder to what degree that has affected my success in science?

      • Perhaps a fair bit? Masculine=strong willed, leader type, logical, analytical, left-brain thinking. But as u probably already know, each has his/her own life mission n will draw upon the most relevant energies to fulfil that. 😉

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