Volume:9, Issue: 1

May. 15, 2017

A Significant Challenge and One Math Teacher's Response
Vierra Jr., Kanoe C. [about]

ABSTRACT: A significant challenge for all teachers is determining how to get all students to engage in class in a genuine way; this is especially true for math teachers. A guiding principle for all teachers is to develop a connection with students to aid in this engagement. As such, to increase student engagement, especially in schools where students deal with difficult situations (high poverty, high English Language Learner population, low student prerequisite knowledge), making a connection to students is paramount. The idea of developing relationships has been championed by educators throughout history and is vital to increase the engagement of students.

KEYWORDS: teaching math, engagement, disengagement, relationships.

Throughout my career as an educator, I have had the experience of teaching many students mathematics ranging from Algebra Essentials (a support class for students lacking the requisite skills needed in Algebra 1) to Advanced Placement Calculus. I have had the opportunity to teach at a rural high school with little diversity and at an urban high school with great diversity. One of the greatest common issues that I have dealt with, regardless of the setting or class, is engagement. I would define engaged students as ones who make a conscious effort to mentally interact with the content presented or researched, who ask questions about content they do not understand, and who, at least, make an attempt to work through the tasks assigned to them.

The challenge to increase engagement has been magnified at the school where I currently teach. This school has a high poverty population and high English Language Learner population. There are students from all over the globe and several are learning English as a third or even fourth language. Engagement in schoolwork is difficult, to say the least, when students are dealing with both poverty and learning a language. Having interacted with a school composed of this demographic for the past 6 years, I have learned that developing a relationship with students is the most important aspect of teaching that will help increase engagement in school.

Reasons for Disengagement

There are myriad reasons for students to disengage ranging from lack of confidence to just having an off day. I have had several students who could be engaged in class one day and completely disengaged the next. The reasons for this are as varied as the students. Sometimes students are having a bad day, and sometimes they are having difficulties at home. I have had students who were unsure as to where they were going to live and students who have relapsed into drug and alcohol abuse. Regardless of the reason, I have to work to engage, or re-engage, students in the work we have for class that day. This is a difficulty that is not unique to my situation, but to all teachers in various forms.

As teachers, we are tasked with gauging our audience’s attention, learning, and understanding, and adjusting our pedagogical moves to suit what is happening. This monitor and adjust happens constantly throughout the day and is exhausting. What is worse, at least for a teacher, is what Blaisdell (2000) argues that Tolstoy knew, “what was successful in the class one day did not necessarily succeed the next” (p. 1). So, teachers are constantly monitoring, adjusting, and trying various teacher moves that may or may not work, depending on the day, and then we have to account for, and take responsibility of, the amount of content students understand. This makes teaching an almost Sisyphean task. For all its difficulties, every teacher that I know wants to help their students increase their ability or understanding in their particular area of instruction.

Key to Engagement

The best thing that we as teachers and adults, can do to help increase the level of engagement in our classes is, I believe, to build relationships with our students. At its core, building relationships with students is a way for teachers to gain access into the minds of our students and allow us to determine what elements of a subject or class are of interest to them, or where their understanding is falling short of what we would like. This is a sentiment that is, at least tangentially, shared by John Dewey (1897) who states, “… that only through the continual and sympathetic observation of childhood's interests can the adult enter into the child's life and see what it is ready for, and upon what material it could work most readily and fruitfully.” Getting through to the heart of what a student knows, understands, and is ready to move on to is the crux of engagement. This can only be accomplished through solid relationships between teachers and students.

I had a student at one point in my career who came into class every day and would say, “I hate math”. This was difficult to deal with as I took the dislike as to be a personal attack. Through talking with and getting to know this student, I came to understand that this was an individual way of saying that math was difficult for him and not an attack on me. Over the course of a few years, this student went from hating math to wanting to study a field related to mathematics in college. This work took many years, but resulted in a complex, but gratifying relationship with a student who developed some level of esteem for math.

Engagement in Math

Kelly and Zhang (2016) researched the effect of teacher support on student engagement. They found that as students get older, their engagement decreases. While this is disconcerting, the more alarming part, at least in my point of view, is that, “17.0% percent of 9th graders strongly disagreed that they “see [themselves] yourself as a math person” (one of the efficacy and identification items)” (p.150). The fact that almost one-fifth of 9th graders believe that they are “not math people” does not bode well for someone who teaches 11th and 12th grade students, like myself, whose attitudes towards math have likely been solidified more so than 9th grade students. What is more, by the time students reach high school, there are many things surrounding a student that can cause disengagement, and yet they have nothing to do with school. Crosnoe (2011) argues that factors of disengagement often, “include the influence of neighborhoods, homes, and peers, and in some cases, personal and social conditions that might not seem at first to be directly impacted by schooling” (as cited in Kelly & Zhang, 2016, p. 158).

Engagement is an issue for all classes and subjects, but it seems that math is a subject that students either like and will try at, or hate and fight all attempts of engagement, there does not seem to be much middle ground. Jones (2013) states, “Mathematics, in a recent Gallup Poll, has the somewhat unique status of being one of the least liked and yet most valued school subjects in the US” (as cited in Kennedy & Smolinsky, 2016, p. 719). This seemingly contradictory view of math being valued, yet hated, is something that math teachers deal with on a daily basis, especially those of us at the high school level. This is not always the case, however. Generally, students like math up until some point in the upper elementary grades. As Kennedy and Smolinsky assert, “many young children hold positive views of mathematics until around the 4th grade, following which their negative views and avoidance behaviors began to grow” (2016, p. 719).

Loss of Engagement in Math

What causes this switch in attitude from liking math, or at least not hating it, to avoiding any interaction with math? Part of the blame likely lies with teachers who either did not enjoy math themselves, or, like me, enjoyed the abstract nature of math so much that they have difficulty making the math relevant to students’ lives (this is something on which I am working, but it is slow going). Another part of the blame must lie in the relationships that these students have formed with teachers of math. Students who do not like math, for whatever reason, likely have another class in which they are engaged. As Kelly and Zhang (2016) discovered, “students reporting more positive experiences with a teacher in one subject versus the other consistently reported higher levels of engagement in that subject as well” (p. 153). To build engagement, I must work on creating more positive experiences with my students. While this may not be a catchall solution, it is certainly a start.

Perhaps, this shift from being positive about math to becoming negative toward math lies in something more subtle. The conceptual understanding of math is sort of like a house; it is vital to have a solid foundation. If a student does not feel comfortable enough with a foundational tool, like adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing, or working with both positive and negative integers, or with fractions and decimals, then this student cannot build solid understanding upon that foundation. If the content becomes too abstract or difficult, without a solid foundation, all of the confidence a student did have can come crashing down. As Seymour (2016) states, “Math starts with a basic foundation, and without it, students find it increasingly difficult to acquire new skills” (p. 84).

Seymour had a student who was completely disengaged in her study of math. This student was so averse to math that she would “shudder” whenever her teacher approached (p. 84). This girl could not be engaged in mathematics. But at the end, she passed the state required math test (something she had failed to do several times). So, what changed? Certainly, it was not this student’s enjoyment of solving mathematical problems or working with theorems (this happens occasionally, but most students, at least those I have encountered, will end up being less averse to math, but not liking math). It was the relationship forged by a teacher with this student that led to an opening whereby engagement in mathematics could occur.

Origin of Relationships

So far, I have discussed the necessity of building relationships in order to engage students in whatever content is taught, but where did this idea come from? In ancient times, Socrates was the first to introduce the necessity for teachers know their students better. He also believed that true education arose from strong relationships. As Gutek (1995) submits, “Discipleship, an intense personal relationship between teacher and student, was closely related to Socratic education” (p. 40). While this type of discipleship is not possible in today’s educational setting (and probably not legal), there is something to the notion that relationships between teacher and student are vital to any learning situation. In fact, Lundberg and Schreiner (2004) state that, “satisfying relationships with faculty members and frequent interaction with faculty members, especially those that encouraged students to work harder, were strong predictors of learning across every racial group” (as cited in Sciarra, Seirup, & Sposato, 2016, p. 191). It seems that the forming of a relationship between teacher and student can lead all students to better engagement and better learning.


Teachers work tirelessly to get all students in their classes to meet the required standards. To ensure this happens, teachers must engage students in the content presented. This can be a difficult task when there are so many factors potentially working against their students. Many of the students who are characterized as “difficult” generally want to achieve success in school but they are unsure or how to do this. These students are longing for a connection to the school and to teachers that goes beyond the superficial. Digging deep into what motivates and interests our students can help us move past the superficial relationships and get to a point where we know our students on a personal level.

Although building relationships to increase engagement is not sufficient to engage all students in the deep, meaningful learning all teachers desire, it is still enough to start the process. We all know that making content relevant to learners and their funds of knowledge, providing actionable and substantial feedback, and differentiating instruction to meet the needs of individual learners are all vital to creating a meaningful, engaging learning experience. However, we must not forget the role that relationships with students can play when attempting to reach those individuals who are resistant in every way imaginable. Maybe what they need is someone who shows care for them and about their learning, and who is there to help them succeed.


  1. Dewey, J. (1897). My pedagogic creed. School Journal, 54 (3), 77-80.
  2. Gutek, G. (1995). A history of the western educational experience (2nd ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
  3. Kelly, S., Zhang, Y. (2016). Teacher support and engagement in math and science: Evidence from the high school longitudinal study. High School Journal99(2), 141-165.
  4. Kennedy, E., & Smolinsky, L. (2016). Math circles: A tool for promoting engagement among middle school minority males. EURASIA Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education12(4), 717-732.
  5. Sciarra, D. T., Seirup, H. J., & Sposato, E. (2016). High school predictors of college persistence: The significance of engagement and teacher interaction. Professional Counselor6(2), 189-202.
  6. Seymour, L. (2016). One point short: Let's not define students by their test scores. Education Next16(1), 84. 
  7. Tolstoy, L.N. (2000). Tolstoy as teacher: Leo Tolstoy’s writings on education. B. Blaisdell (Ed.). (C. Edgar, Trans.). New York, NY: Philmark Lithographics.

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