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Did you know? Teachers are mathematics identity builders

Group photo“She thought I was capable of doing a lot in math. That’s what really motivated me. She lets me know I can be cool and smart at the same time.” (Middle School Student)

When I talk with teachers from across Iowa, I am often asked how they can effectively teach students of color. When I get this question, I trust teachers want to do the very best for their students yet they are experiencing the same kind of achievement disparities in their classrooms that we see across the state and the nation (see, for example, the student achievement section of Iowa’s Annual Condition of Education report). The state legislature’s Closing the Achievement Gaps report (page 7, 8 & 9) further highlights the state’s equity status as it relates to students. Teachers see these gaps in achievement in their own classrooms and they desperately want to know how to help.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) acknowledges these realities.  In their 2014 publication Principles to Action, the very first essential element for effective school mathematics programs is Access and Equity: “An excellent mathematics program requires that all students have access to a high-quality mathematics curriculum, effective teaching and learning, high expectations, and the support and resources needed to maximize their learning potential.” (p. 59). I believe the teachers who approach me believe this, but they are struggling with understanding what to actually do to enact these principles.

This is certainly a complex question that requires a complex set of solutions. This spring, I had the opportunity to hear NCTM President Robert Berry at the State Mathematics Leadership Team meeting. I was reminded of one particular aspect of the challenge that I think is worth highlighting: Effective teachers affirm positive mathematical identities among all of their students, especially students of color.

During his presentation, he talked about the importance of students’ mathematical identities. “Mathematical identity has to do with how one sees themselves as doers of, or learners of mathematics, the knowledge, skills, habits, attitudes, beliefs, and relationships that students need to develop as successful mathematics learners (Aguirre, Mayfield-Ingram, and Martin 2013; Anderson 2007; Boaler 2002; Grootenboer and Zevenbergen 2007).” One’s mathematical identity is comprised of beliefs about one’s self as a mathematics learner, one’s perceptions of how others perceive them as a mathematics learner, beliefs about the nature of mathematics, engagement in mathematics, and perception of self as a potential participant in mathematics (Solomon, 2009). Identity affects student success. Positive identity traits are part of the goals for mathematics programs. Mathematical identity influences life-long decision making (Williams, 2018).

Through work we have done in the Waterloo school district, I was encouraged to think about how my own identity impacted me as a mathematics educator and learner. Those of you who know me know I am from Cameroon. I grew up in a culture where at the time, women did not pursue education, let alone mathematics. Because I went to a missionary school, I was encouraged to excel in school and mathematics and my father reinforced the idea that I could become and accomplish anything I wanted. I grew up believing that I could not only do mathematics, but I could do mathematics really well.

I continue to think about how my mathematics identity might have been different under different circumstances. If I were a student who had just immigrated to the United States today, what do you suppose my teachers might assume about my previous educational background? With that, what might their expectations be about my mathematical identity? How might their assumptions and expectations affect me?

While teachers truly want the best for their students, and many teachers do hold high expectations for students as an explicit value, there are myriad ways that implicit or unconscious expectations we hold are getting in the way of our craft. I truly believe that those of us who want to more effectively teach students of color must start by looking within ourselves. I am realizing that teachers have been asking me for different instructional strategies, but what I need them to do is first start by building or deepening their awareness of race, disparities, and the potential for implicit bias and unhelpful stories about students and their families to trip them up.

The good news is that, we can work together to overcome this!  I invite you to join us as we work to deepen our awareness of equity!  Here are just a few ideas:

  • Read NCTM’s The Impact of Identity in K-8 Mathematics and check out its five equity-based teaching practices. Educators can find a great deal of insight and ideas in this book. They offer that “access to rigorous, high-quality mathematics, taught by teachers who not only understand mathematics but also understand and appreciate learners’ social and cultural contexts in meaningful ways” is critical. They further describe the importance of “classroom environments that foster a sense of community that allows students to express their mathematical ideas.”

    Within this highly readable book are five equity-based teaching practices that I believe every teacher can access: going deep; leveraging multiple competencies; affirming mathematics learners' identities; challenging spaces of marginality; and drawing on multiple resources of knowledge.

  • Find an organization that will help you think about equity, implicit bias, and cultural competency (I can help you find one if you need help).

    Seek professional development that is ongoing (one-shot experiences are not sufficient to address this complicated learning task); offers ways to examine your own knowledge, habits, and beliefs rather than starting with exercises to understand “the other”; and skillfully facilitated (poorly handled conversations about race can lead to misunderstandings, bitterness, hurt feelings, and blocked learning, while well-facilitated conversations can help participants to better understand the history and function of race in society, contemplate their own values, beliefs, and emotions, and practice strategies to overcome the influence of implicit bias and to proactively engage students of color).

  • Join the Iowa Department of Educations' statewide mathematics leader this summer by June 7 at for a book study. As a community of mathematics leaders in Iowa, we are collectively committing to reading/re-reading Principles to Actions through an Access and Equity lens. Every two weeks we will gather virtually to discuss NCTM’s Reflection Guide questions in the Principles to Actions Toolkit. Times, dates, and platform will be determined by those who sign up.

Teachers, school leaders, policymakers, and those of us who implement policy all can help students – in both subtle and explicit ways – as they navigate their paths. I would suggest empowering students to realize their mathematical identities is as important as helping them to learn key mathematical concepts. To do this, we must spend time understanding how our own and our students’ multiple identities intersect. How we all are susceptible to unhelpful assumptions about students’ identities and what that means about their potential. Just like the teacher whose student is quoted in the opening statement. We all can play a role in empowering students to see themselves as mathematicians and to develop agency around their mathematical identities.

Thank you for engaging in this work; I trust you will experience joy as you continue to deepen your own work on equity in the years to come.


  • Aguirre, J. M., Mayfield-Ingram, K., & Martin, D. B. (2013). The impact of identity in K-8 mathematics learning and teaching: Rethinking equity-based practices. Reston, VA: NCTM.
  • Anderson, R., 2007. Being a mathematics learner: Four faces of identity. The Mathematics Educator, 17(1): 7–14.
  • Boaler, J. (2002). The development of disciplinary relationships: Knowledge, practice and identity in mathematics classrooms. For the Learning of Mathematics, 22(1), 42–47.
  • Grootenboer, P., & Zevenbergen, R. (2007). Identity and mathematics: Towards a theory of agency in coming to learn mathematics. In J. Watson & K. Beswick (Eds.), Mathematics: Essential research, essential practice (Proceedings of the 30th annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia, Tasmania, Vol. 1, pp. 335-344). Adelaide: MERGA.
  • NCTM. (2014). Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
  • Solomon, Y. (2009). Mathematical literacy: Developing identities of inclusion. New York, NY: Routledge.



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