Female teachers transmit math anxiety to female students

A new study suggests that elementary school may be a breeding ground for this anxiety. The study found that when elementary school teachers, who are primarily female, displayed a high level of anxiety about math, that skittishness was transmitted to their female students. Those students who spent a year with a math-phobic teacher displayed lower math achievement and an increased belief in stereotypes about female mathematical ability.

As the authors note, anxiety about doing math, particularly in a public forum such as calculating the tip for a restaurant check, has long been known to be an impediment to math performance, independent of quantitative skill. Elementary education majors have been found to be particularly afraid of math—more so than any other college major—but often have little chance to overcome this fear because the math requirements of their programs are usually minimal.

While their education may be lacking somewhat in math, that doesn’t mean they’ll never have to deal with it again, which turns out to be problematic, as the authors find that teachers’ anxieties about math, even at elementary level, turn out to have consequences for students.

The study in question assessed the math anxiety of 17 first- and second-grade female teachers from a large urban midwestern school district, as well as the math achievement of their students (52 boys and 65 girls). Students’ ideas about gender and academic stereotypes were accounted for, including their thoughts on the common belief that girls are good at reading, while boys are good at math.

The students and teachers were tested for the first three months of the school year, and then again during the last two months. During the first three months of school, there was no relation between the teachers’ anxiety and the students’ achievements or perception of stereotypes. There was also no discrepancy between the math performance of boys and girls. By the last two months of the school year, however, this changed.

Teachers with high math anxiety were shown to have a significant effect on the math achievement and stereotypes of their female students. Girls with anxious teachers scored lower on math achievement tests at the end of the year than girls with more confident teachers—the more anxious the teacher, the more likely girls were to confirm the stereotype that girls have less math ability when they took the year-end tests. Girls who agreed with the stereotype all had lower math achievement scores than girls who did not agree, as well as lower scores than boys in general, who remained immune to their teachers’ influence.

The researchers speculate that the influence of female teachers on their students results from the tendency of children to emulate adults of the same gender. Seeing a math-anxious woman encouraged female students to buy into the stereotype that girls were unskilled at math, thereby allowing themselves to give up on the subject. Meanwhile, boys remained unaware of the influence, suggesting that the problem was not just poor teaching skills, since the boys’ math achievement would have suffered were that the case.

The study was somewhat limited in scope, as it didn’t look at the effects of all possible gender combinations of teachers and students. There may be, for example, a positive and encouraging relationship between male elementary school teachers and their male students, but the low population of male elementary school teachers (less than 10 percent) makes this hard to study. Females are also more socially conscious than males, so male students’ abilities may be more resilient in the face of a math-anxious male teacher.

The fact that over 90 percent of elementary school teachers are female, combined with the high level of math anxiety that many of them transfer to their students, doesn’t bode well for girls’ future in math. The study’s authors acknowledge that the effect was not staggering, and there’s plenty of room for influence by other female role models in the students’ lives, such as mothers or siblings. Still, the work suggests that when it comes to math, elementary school teachers need, at the very least, to put on a much braver face before they do a math problem on the chalk board.

By Casey Johnston