I volunteer with a group that provides tutoring to kids from grades nine through twelve. The included kids have been determined to be 'at risk of not graduating high school'. Of course, many of the students bring mathematics homework to the group, and they present a wide range of skill levels.

All of the tutors mean well (it's hard not to in a volunteer position) but the majority of them are some combination of incapable, unwilling, or uncomfortable with working on mathematics with the students. A student looking for help with math is often met with phrases in the range

  • "I'm not good at math"
  • "I can't math" (this one drives me insane)
  • "Everyone has trouble with math, hey?"
  • "That looks hard..."

The tutor then seeks out one of the 'math people' in order to pair them up, and quickly abandons the scene.

To my mind, this communicates to the students that the tutors believe some combination of the following very bad things

  • Only certain people can learn math.
  • That they don't value math.

and subtly encourages them to adopt these beliefs themselves.

How can such interactions be steered toward something more productive? How can math phobic adults be convinced to participate in actively talking, learning, and participating in mathematics? How one communicate to a well meaning volunteer that their actions are potentially damaging without alienating them or hurting their feelings?

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    $\begingroup$ I have nothing useful to say, except to "brace yourself" for eternal difficulties with this issue, certainly in contemporary U.S. and similar cultures. Math phobia has been perversely elevated to some sort of moral virtue, so that it's actually good to fear and be incompetent at mathematics. And the subject and math teachers and mathematicians are almost exclusively parodied in pop media. So: horrible up-hill battle here. Maybe just request the others to be positive, e.g., "oh, <other person> is the best to help you with this", not "Oh, this is hard, and I'm bad at it." Good luck... $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2015 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ +1; An interesting comparison my colleagues and I often discuss is, which seems more socially acceptable for an American adult to say: "I can't read" or "I can't do math"? Why is it embarrassing for an adult to say "I don't like to read" while it is not (as) embarrassing to say "I don't like to do math"? $\endgroup$
    – Xi Yu
    Jan 2, 2015 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ The last one isn't necessarily wholly bad, if followed up with more. "That looks hard" tells the student that it's the task that's hard, rather than something wrong with the student themselves, which is a good thing. Of course it would be much better if it was finished with something like "...but I reckon we can figure it out." Which encourages the student to persevere. $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2015 at 22:23
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    $\begingroup$ "Math phobia has been perversely elevated to some sort of moral virtue," +1. Too true. $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2015 at 5:20
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    $\begingroup$ @paulgarrett There are good motivations for both 'math people' and 'non-math people' to believe in the mythology of that division, and to embrace math phobic culture. The 'math people' can congratulate themselves for their abilities, the 'non-math people' can forgive themselves for their inabilities. It's 'useful' for educators too, since it provides a much easier path for them to forgive themselves for their struggling students. $\endgroup$
    – NiloCK
    Jan 4, 2015 at 14:23

4 Answers 4


The tutors need training. Any volunteer job has job requirements, and one of the requirements of this job [for it to be done well] is being able to tutor anything that comes along. The training can mainly involve intriguing problems that will help the tutors enjoy math themselves. Then, if they get stuck on a student's problem, they can seek help in a positive way. "Oh cool, I'm stuck. Let's talk to X, who might be able to point us in the right direction."

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    $\begingroup$ A useful addition to this might be that if one of the volunteers who is not the manager sees such a training need, then they should talk to the manager. $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2015 at 4:12
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    $\begingroup$ I agree completely with this, but the problem is that I am a volunteer with the program and the manager of the program is one of the worst offenders. I'm hoping to find some way to illustrate to the manager that these attitudes are harmful and self perpetuating, and that the manager's own feelings toward to subject were born inside the same cultural climate. $\endgroup$
    – NiloCK
    Jan 4, 2015 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ Wow! Have you said anything to this person yet? This calls for lots more diplomacy. Do you otherwise respect this manager? Do you see them doing things for the kids that are really cool? Can you say something along the lines of "I loved watching you do X with that student, can I show you a cool math puzzle/game/y that feels similar to me?" Can you tell them what you see directly? $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Jan 4, 2015 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ Other than their own transferable hangups around things numeric, the program manager is extremely effective, both as an educator in humanities and languages, and as an administrator / child wrangler for an often difficult collection of kids. I have made small attempts to broach this subject, discussing possible consequences of implicit math phobia, but I've mostly been met with a sort of denial, "oh, I don't think that happens here", much the same as people might deny the existence of a problem of implicit sexism or racism in an environment. $\endgroup$
    – NiloCK
    Jan 4, 2015 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ @SueVanHattum I'm mulling options, and leaning toward offering to run a workshop for the volunteers where I'll concentrate on replacing the flight response with constructive ways to approach 'unknown' mathematics, and highlighting how modelling this behavior will enable the kids to do the same. In the meantime I've managed to recruit two more mathematically mature volunteers... $\endgroup$
    – NiloCK
    Jan 6, 2015 at 16:30

Most of my job tutoring high school math is giving my students confidence -- it's rare that a student of mine will actually have trouble with math.

Switch at least part of your focus to building your students' confidence: "hey, that wasn't so hard, was it?," "See, you can do this!" If you can't show their students how to do something, then you should not make discouraging statements, and can say instead "I don't know, let's find out!" At that point, you can either look up the answer, or ask someone else for help. (Also, as Sue pointed out, the tutors should definitely prepare themselves to help out with whatever comes up.)

One last note -- if you "can't math," then I'd add that you can't English, either.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the last sentence. $\endgroup$
    – dtldarek
    Jan 12, 2015 at 20:51

Most people can learn the math that is useful to them. One problem here is that much of high school math isn't.

I am not bothered by tutors saying:

  • "I'm not good at factoring"
  • "I can't figure out what axioms to put down in geometry problems"
  • "Everyone has trouble with trig identities, hey?"

By contrast, tutors would be embarassed to say things like:

  • "I'm not good at budgeting"
  • "I can't figure out how big an air conditioner I need"
  • "Everyone has trouble evaluating choices, hey?"

...because when the tutors face practical issues they probably figure out how to do the math.

So when students get word problems, I recommend that tutors talk through the situations. Algebra classes can have word problems on budgeting. Geometry classes can have problems on air conditioners. Statistics classes can have problems on evaluating choices. In context, students and tutors both will see the point of going to the numbers, and figuring out what to do with them.

When students get problems on factoring and axioms and trigonometry, then I recommend an entirely different response: "This stuff is about manipulating formulas, and you may never have to do that after you leave high school. But people have set it as a test anyway, and they will use it to determine whether to admit you to a college or offer you a job. You can choose to avoid the challenge...and accept that some influential people will look down on you for it. Or you can figure out how to meet the challenge, and see what opportunities it opens up."

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure too many people would be all that embarassed to admit they're not good at budgeting. (I'm not.) I think the point, rather, is that not feeling good at something is not the end of the world. I'm not great at budgeting, but I'll still sit down, take a breath, and work through making a budget. You can factor, too. $\endgroup$ Jan 10, 2015 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ My point is, for most people, the benefit of high school math isn't direct applications. It's learning to be unintimidated by non-obvious, analytical tasks. $\endgroup$ Jan 10, 2015 at 19:11

I don't see that there is anything you can do other than teach the non-math volunteers math. Your normal "Joe" isn't going to be able to do pre-cal homework. The only real thing I would push is tell them to find someone who can help, but never, ever, under any circumstances say things like "Everyone has trouble with math, hey" or anything else that pushes the notion that math is OK to be "bad" at.

The tutoring center should really be split up so that math tutors are the ones tutoring math and non-math people are never approached with math questions. Even the honest "I'm not good at math" is dangerously close to reinforcing the idea that it's OK to be bad at math. So those people really should not be allowed to field any kind of math question. If faced with something like that, they should say something like "Let me find you someone who can better help you with that question."

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    $\begingroup$ Part of me feels like what you're suggesting creates the same sort of problem. If you segregate the tutoring center into those who are good at math and those who are not, you're relaying to the students that math is not for everyone. It seems to me from the OP that the center is less structured than other tutoring centers that have specific tutors for specific topics, which tend to segregate their tutors by expertise. I'm not sure how I feel about this. $\endgroup$ Jan 5, 2015 at 8:14
  • $\begingroup$ @AndrewSanfratello I get that, but then the problem has no real solution, because facts are that normal people cannot help a precal student asked to find the focii of an ellipse. I (sort of) agree that a smart enough person with enough will power could figure it out, but I think that's asking a lot of volunteers...hence why I would suggest the "let's find someone who can better help you" approach--I think it solves both problems. It doesn't directly acknowledge the tutor's lack of math understanding while still directing the student to someone who can help. $\endgroup$
    – Jared
    Jan 5, 2015 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, most people unfamiliar with topics beyond basic Algebra will not be able to figure out more complicated problems. Again, only part of me feels like this leads you with the same problem; the other part of me thinks this is a viable solution. However, I don't think it's the only solution. As others have suggested, having the tutors who are not qualified to work with the mathematics be a little more delicate in their language and seeking another tutor is probably easier than teaching all the tutors the mathematics needed. $\endgroup$ Jan 5, 2015 at 8:46

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