From math learning disability to teacher & math coach

I could tell the story of an anonymous child who was diagnosed with a learning disability and later became a teacher and math instructional coach, then do a big reveal at the end (THAT STUDENT WAS ME!!1!1!) but I’ll skip the drama and tell you you upfront. Yes, that student was me. Here’s what happened.

Hate is probably not a strong enough word to describe how I felt about math when I was little. Math pained me. It made no sense. There was only one right answer to every problem and I never knew what it was. Math required attention to detail, and one little mistake made the entire thing WRONG.

Now writing? That was a different story. There I had the freedom to be creative, to think of new ways of doing things, to share my ideas and use words. Numbers I hated but words I loved. Writing them, reading them…I was devouring “Harriet the Spy” as a kindergartener. Words meant possibility and imagination. They could not have been more opposite of math.

I remember sobbing at the dining room table with my father as he drilled me on multiplication facts with a set of flashcards he made himself. I was in sixth grade, and my teachers were annoyed that I had still not disciplined myself to memorize basic math facts. It had become impossible for me to keep up with the rest of the class as as we did five digit multiplication problems. My dad would patiently flip through those flash cards over and over and over, and I’d struggle and cry and beg to do something else. It was torture for both of us, but if my father hadn’t made me do it, I probably wouldn’t know my multiplication tables today.

We had been living in Norway (my dad was in the army) and there were no special education services at my school, but when we returned to the U.S. and I entered ninth grade, I was immediately diagnosed with dyscalculia, a learning disability in math. I recieved accommodations for the first time, but I already hated math so much, and I had entered my rebellious teenage years. I skipped class, played around, and generally put forth so little effort that I got an F in algebra.

My parents pulled me out of public school and sent me to a tiny private school where I couldn’t get away with those kind of behaviors. It’s a good thing they did (it’s doubtful that I would have shaped up and gotten into college otherwise) but my private school had no special education programs. So I was back where I started in terms of math: sitting in a general education classroom, completely lost and basically doing whatever it took to slide by and hope that my grades in my other subjects would allow me to get into college where I could take courses that actually interested me.

It worked, somehow. I was accepted into a small liberal arts college where I enrolled as an Early Childhood Education major. I loved having the freedom to choose my courses and schedule and enjoyed the self-paced structure of college in general, and had no trouble maintaining a 3.8 GPA. I was required to take one math course–and only one, thank God. I selected some sort of computer-based course taught by a professor who realized he had a group of math phobic 18 year olds and treated us kindly. He gave me a B, and I was ecstatic.

I dove into my teaching methods courses during my sophomore year, thrilled to be taking classes I was truly interested in. All these years of suffering through irrelevant, boring courses to finally get to THIS! I was a bit apprehensive about the math methods class but figured I could handle it–after all, I was an early childhood education major. How hard could it be to learn about teaching 2+2, right?

In one of our first math methods classes, the professor had us all sit in groups and dumped a container of counters on the table between us. I’d never used them before in my life.

“Make a group of 3.” Got it. “Make another group of 3.” Okay. “Now make another group of 3.” This isn’t so bad! “How many do you have? 9. So what math sentence did you just illustrate?”

Someone in the back called out, “3×3=9″ and my jaw almost hit the floor. My eyes shot down to my manipulatives. Oh my ... 3 groups of 3 … that’s multiplication?? THAT’S what 3×3 means? What the … Multiplication MEANS something?! It’s not just a bunch of facts to memorize! WHAT?!  The hallelujah chorus started playing, unicorns with rainbow tails flitted around the room, etc. etc.

But my euphoria was suddenly eclipsed by panic. Wait a second, I’m 19 years old and I just now figured out what multiplication is? I’m such an idiot. They weren’t kidding when they told me I have a math learning disability. I am so embarrassed–

“Ohhhhh, I get it!”

I looked slowly over to my right, and was stunned to see the girl sitting next to me marveling at her manipulatives, too. “I never realized this before! These counters are great!”

The girl across the table nodded in agreement. “I didn’t want to say anything, but that’s the first time I really got it, too. WOW.” And the three of us sat there exchanging glances like the whole world had figured out that Ben Linus had moved the island and we were still down in the hatch pushing a button every 108 seconds.

That math methods course changed my life. Or maybe I should say that base ten blocks changed my life. As I traded in ten ones for a ten rod, and ten tens for a hundreds block, I realized for the first time what place value and number sense were all about. Multiple digit addition and subtraction made sense beyond a rote process I had memorized. The secret to numbers was unlocked for me. I finally got it. 

I was ready to teach math to bunch of little kids, but it took a few years for me to stop being scared of math in my own life. Even after graduating from college, I acted as if I were incapable of balancing a checkbook and just hoped the numbers would somehow work themselves out every month. I insisted on using a calculator to solve even the simplest problem. I flipped through my mortgage papers blankly, assuming I wouldn’t be able to understand the math and not really bothering to try.

But the longer I was a teacher, the more I realized that I didn’t hate math. I wasn’t bad at it. And figuring out math problems wasn’t some secret than only other people could understand. In fact, words and math? They can actually go together. There IS more than one right answer in math, or at least, more than one way to arrive at an answer. Math could be fun. It could be creative. It could make sense. It could have meaning.

By my sixth year of teaching, I made it my personal mission to retrain every child in my class who hated math. “By the end of the school year, you will LOVE math. I guarantee it,” I’d proclaim boldly the first week of school. And my students did love math, for the most part. They might have hated the worksheets and the test prep crap I was required to give them, but they didn’t hate math. And equally importantly–they understood it and felt capable of mastering it.

I became a math coach after eleven years of teaching. It was in many ways a dream come true. The younger teachers I’ve worked with have (mostly) had experience with manipulatives in school or at least in college–they’re wonderful. But I really love working with older teachers who were trained to use paper and pencil activities like I used when I was little. Watching these veteran teachers have the same “aha” moment I had the first time I was taught to use manipulatives? Amazing. And seeing that “aha” moment transform the way they teach math to their students? Priceless.

Please don’t take this story the wrong way: I don’t mean to trivialize learning disabilities or in any way insinuate that everyone with dyscalculia can be “cured” just by playing with manipulatives. Fear of math is a real thing. Overcoming it and re-learning fundamental math concepts took years. Complex math concepts are still not my forté.  I just want to share my story to let those who hate math, don’t “get” math, or have learning disabilities in math know that they’re not the only ones, and they can still have successful, fulfilling careers. I also wanted to share this to encourage teachers and parents not to give up on math phobic kids–you never know when things will just click for a child, and all that hard work will pay off.

Math became one of my favorite subjects to teach, and I want to share things and create materials that make it easier for other teachers to enjoy it, too. I also want to make math less painful for kids. I don’t want any child to sit sobbing at the dining room table while struggling to memorize rote facts like I did. I want to spread the word: math is fun, math means something, and math is relevant to your life. I had no idea just how relevant it would one day become to mine.

What were your experiences with math when you were in school? How does that affect the way you feel about (and teach) math today?

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Asiyah April 4, 2013 at 8:08 pm

Ok that reference from Lost totally rocks! Thanks for sharing your story too!

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2 Bridget April 4, 2013 at 8:18 pm

I have always hated math and struggled learning facts as well. Today, I still find it it the most difficult subject to teach. I don’t feel proficient enough to teach it even though I teach at the kindergarten and first grade level. I wish I had a greater understanding of math in general. I think I avoided math for too many years!

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3 Joe Conner April 4, 2013 at 8:40 pm

I was the same way. I dropped out of Geometry in High School and had to cheat through Algebra I in college. I finally came to math later. Just like I got my whiskers later than most boys I got my math ability later as well. I now teach Physics in High School and Completed Calculus I in college. I know your feeling. Thanks for sharing.

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4 Arline April 4, 2013 at 8:43 pm

This sounds too familiar! I remember sitting in “Math for Teachers” in college and finally understanding “borrowing” (regrouping). Never in my life had I understood what I was doing until I had those nifty ones, tens and hundreds cubes and nice boxes around each place value. Who knew?!

It was amazing how much better a math teacher I was than a reading teacher. I had to seriously re-learn math in order to teach it well, and it was so good for both my students and me. :)

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5 Arline April 4, 2013 at 8:44 pm

And the Lost reference was perfect. ;)

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6 Mary April 4, 2013 at 9:48 pm

Your story is intriguing and your website is sooooo inspiring! LOVE, LOVE, LOVE IT!!!

I have been a teacher for 23 years now having worked with PK -5th grade. For most of that time I taught Math and Music to children in a very rural & low socioeconomic community. I have come a long way since 8th grade when I was told I wouldn’t go past general Math in high school. My BS in Elementary Education is proudly displayed in my classroom…alongside my 4th grade report card, which contains mostly C’s! We never know the potential in children unless we explore all the methodologies of teaching. Kudos to you for sharing your story! Keep up the good work!

Ps. I want to share a quick sidenote that happened to me recently. Our school was undergoing a “Title I Review” and the field officer made a huge assumption that I couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like for a child with learning disabilities, because learning comes easy for me. Let’s just say I set him straight and I think he understood when I finished!

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7 Nancy April 5, 2013 at 7:22 am

Fantastic and inspiring story, Angela! It’s awesome that you turned your fear into inspiration for others. :)

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8 Donna April 5, 2013 at 11:26 am

This sounds just like me!! Only now I don’t teach math anymore. I kind of miss it!

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9 Paddy April 8, 2013 at 7:55 am

I totally understand your math fears. It ws like a foreign language to me as I grew up. My inability to relate changes my intended career path from being a biologist to becoming a teacher. I must say that was the single best problem I overcame since I loved teaching.

In the classroom I worked hard and smart to help kids who looked as blocked as I had felt as a young learner. I created math games, and stations where my students could ‘play’ and learn math. In small groups we explored the ones, tens, and hundreds in as many ways as possible. Thenit happened. I saw lightbulbs go on in students who’d had blank stares for weeks. All that ‘playing’ had opened their minds to math.

My favorite after story was of a pair of young girls who hated math when they came into second grade. Years later I learned from their parents that both became math majors. They wanted me to know becuase they thought our ‘playing around’ helped their daughters break through.

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10 Kimberly K Domangue April 10, 2013 at 7:33 am

Angela,
This was totally my own story. Multiplication and prime factor trees killed me from 3rd grade forward until I attended a small Christian school and I got caught. I got caught not in a figurative sense, either. Our work was independent and we were mentored by a lead teacher and assistant. We were responsible for marking our daily workbook pages on a card that hung on our personal bulletin boards above our desks (which had dividers). Well, when I put that I ended today’s work on page 264 in the workbook of about 70 pages, the gig was up for me! The neat thing is that I was diagnostically tested and placed in a second grade math book. This allowed me to get my skills caught up, which I did within a year’s time. The cool thing was that I was able to participate with the high school students in Language/Reading because my skill set was much higher in that area. Oh, I was a sixth grader at the time.

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11 Angela Watson April 11, 2013 at 9:00 pm

It’s so cool to hear from other people who had similar experiences! I felt like I was the only one, but knew somehow that others must have gone through the same thing. Thank you all for taking the time to comment.

Kimberly: I laughed at the part about you pretending to finish the whole workbook! That’s totally something I would have done. It’s cool to hear about what worked for you. These days, there is a lot of apprehension about embarrassing a child by giving them below grade level work. I doubt anyone today would give a 6th grader a 2nd grade workbook…and yet, that was the solution for you. So interesting!

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12 Kellie Haynes April 14, 2013 at 2:03 am

You just wrote MY story…and I too, am now a math coach!!!!

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13 Carrie April 21, 2013 at 4:54 pm

What kind of counters do you use? Homeschooling a 10yo with severe dyscalculia. We’ve been beating our heads against addition for 3 years. We’ve tried every multisensory thing out there. She has most of the 0-9 addition facts down now, and can model them, but still doesn’t “get” it if you know what I mean. She can’t play with the numbers in her head and make sense out of them.

6yo behind her, however, is spontaneously figuring out fractions on her own…..

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14 Kristin May 9, 2013 at 10:48 pm

This is me! While doing my student teaching I realized why we borrowed!! I had NO idea! I was just taught to do the algorithm, that is one thing I hope to teach all of my students is WHY we do things in math. My confidence has grown a lot but I am a new teacher and many things still scare the heck out of me! I’m hoping my struggles with learning will help me relate to my resource students. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one out there!

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15 Beth June 12, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Thank you for sharing your story. I’m 42 and just now believing I have dyscalculia. I steered away from college for so long knowing I would have to take some math classes. Unfortunately, in 2010 my husband passed away from cancer. Luckily I did have the chance to go to college through a veteran’s program (my husband was retired Air Force). I did well in all my classes. In fact graduated community college with high honors, but that was because I only had to take 2 math classes. I barely passed each one. My first semester at a 4 year college, statistics arggh, I flunked horribly. I didn’t even bother to take the final, because I flunked all other tests. Now, I’m in my second semester and taking stats again along with a finance class that takes a lot of math with word problems. Word problems and things that take more than 2 steps yeah well I forget how to do. I’m so frustrated. I’m failing both classes. Thankfully, I have an appointment with a psychologist next week to be tested. I’m pretty sure I already know the results after reading the symptoms and checking all of them off. Thank you for sharing it gives me hope that I can actually get past this and get my degree.

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16 Sally August 22, 2013 at 12:00 am

Thank you for sharing your stories and comments. I had the same thing. I was born in 1950 and struggled at school with math and dropped out. Then later in life I did a university degree in New Zealand and came to understand the way I was taught didn’t suit my learning style. We each have different ways of learning. Unlocking that was the key. I am still not great with complex math problems but ok with basic stuff. I keep a stash of formulas at the back of my calculator to show me how to get solutions I may need.
Thank you

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17 Aznin March 31, 2014 at 5:33 pm

You just gave me a glimmer of hope. My daughter who is now 9 yrs old had a stroke when she was 6. Coma for almost 3 weeks, she woke up almost completely paralyzed. 3 years on, she is now ‘walking’. Not quite the same way we do, but she’s walking nonetheless. She’s in a regular school (we live in a place where special school and specially trained teachers are not easily available) and struggling with reading and math, as a consequence from the stroke (a scan showed that there was some damage to her brain but most are reversible considering her age). I worry about her progress in school and how she will carry on in the real world. I’ve just learned the term discalculia and am now trying to learn as much as I can about it in trying to help my daughter. Thank you for this post, for at least I know she can be helped. =)

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18 Mel September 14, 2014 at 2:51 am

With maths there has always been things I could do but in the main maths was a series of things I couldn’t do. I find it impossible to remember how to do things, I can do them when I am shown again but will have forgot it by the next day. I struggled at school, good at everything except maths, science I was good at (probably because the equations were letters!) I was never tested it wasn’t until I became a teacher that I even heard of dyscalculia!

When I read the symptoms it all fell into place. I can read a number then somehow my brain mixes it up. If faced with an equation I freeze. It is the one thing that stresses me! However, I did pass my adult numeracy course and test, first time! My teacher was amazing, she got me to write things out in full, the method suddenly became more memorable, I struggle to remember them now but I passed the test!

One thing it has taught me is to not take for granted that every student can do what I can do, it makes me understand dyslexia, Adhd, autism and a whole host of other things. All my life I felt that people who could do maths, looked down on those that couldn’t, if I had a £ for the amount of people who have said something like “who doesn’t know how to do long division? Haha” I’d be very rich! I makes me want to be more empathetic and proficient in helping those who struggle.

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19 Angela Watson October 3, 2014 at 12:43 am

Thank you so much for sharing that, Mel! I agree that going through an experience like this does give you much more patience in teaching it to kids. Since reading was easy for me as a child, I don’t always “get it” when kids aren’t making the connection. When they don’t understand math, I’m like, yep, I know that feeling! Let me explain it another way. :)

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