From Math Hater to Math Teacher: My Journey with the Calculus Project

by | 12.12.19

Alisha is a high school math teacher in Massachusetts.

How do you create an equitable classroom for all math learners?

What strategies do you use to help students break through barriers in math?

How do you build confidence for your math learners?

Growing up, I hated math. If you’d asked me back then if I would be a math teacher now, I would say, “No way!” I was intimidated by it – and the way things were, I didn’t feel like I was even supposed to be good at it. 

I was the only black student in a class of almost all white kids. When I made a mistake, or when I had a question, I thought the other students were all judging me. I wondered if maybe I was the only one who wasn’t getting it. I would never speak up. 

I remember that I wasn’t that great at my times tables – I had the easy ones down, the fives, the tens, but if my teacher asked me one of the trickier ones, like seven times six, I would freeze. Every time I couldn’t give the right answer in front of the other kids, I got more embarrassed. I became the kind of math student who memorizes the answers because they think they could never solve the problems. 

Then my mom enrolled me in The Calculus Project’s (TCP) summer program, which brings together students of color and low-income students to prepare them for mathematics. I started the summer before eight grade with an algebra preview, and then before ninth grade, I took the geometry honors preview. That summer in particular gave me a new outlook on math – and a new sense of my own potential.

At TCP, I was surrounded by black and brown students like me, and the strategies we used made me go from hating math to standing at the front of my own classroom:

No more “I don’t get it”

When we had trouble with a math problem, our TCP teachers taught us to name what part of the problem we were stuck on. So instead of saying, “I don’t get it,” I’d say, “I don’t know what power to multiply this by.” Then my teachers would have me state the choices out loud – tens, hundreds – and coach me through it. 

When I heard myself reason through each step, I knew I could finish the problem. 

And when my teachers praised my thinking strategies, I stopped feeling so intimidated and started taking on trickier problems. Even if I wasn’t sure I could get them right on the first try, I knew I had the tools to get there eventually and that made me so excited. 

Peer teaching

As our TCP teachers built up our skills, they built up our confidence by teaching us to mentor one another: They’d write math problems on the whiteboard, and we’d solve them as a group, or we’d take turns and help one another out. 

We all tried to push ourselves to do the best that we could – and it didn’t matter if we struggled, because we knew that was all part of it. I stopped being afraid to do math problems in front of people. I stopped being afraid of participating in class. And when a friend was struggling with a problem, and my explanation helped them get it, I felt so proud.

Seeing ourselves in math

I remember when TCP’s director brought in professionals of color from different math and STEM-related fields – researchers, teachers, engineers – to give us a glimpse of all the places math could take us.  I hadn’t ever been exposed to black educators before the Calculus Project, and it was encouraging to suddenly see those paths open up for me. It made me want to try even harder. 


When ninth grade started, I walked into geometry honors class with new confidence, not only because I was familiar with the material, but also because, for the first time, I now had black and brown friends enrolled in the same section. Thanks to TCP mentoring an entire group of my peers, I was no longer the only black student in math class, and I was no longer afraid to speak up – whether to ask a question or to explain a problem to the rest of the class. I knew I had the problem-solving skills from TCP and the community of peers and mentors who believed in me. That motivated me to keep working on my math skills all year, and all through high school: I knew I was starting out strong, and I wanted to end strong. 

Not every school has The Calculus Project (yet!), but as math teachers, we can employ these simple strategies to show all our students that they do belong in math class, and we can empower them with the tools so that they can succeed, too. 

If you’re interested in learning more about The Calculus Project, you can check out their website here.

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