Catholic homeschool mom and daughter

The Danger of Negative Self-Talk: A Math Story

Homeschooling Difficult Subjects and Finding the Joy in Learning

From Enjoyment to Anxiety

I remember the year math turned sour for me. It was 6th grade. I had enjoyed math and done well with it during my elementary years, but when I got to 6th grade, it was like I hit a wall. Granted, the content started to get a little more challenging as I moved from basic functions into pre-algebra. But I also remember my 6th-grade math teacher wasn’t the best at explaining the concepts. She just sorta… laid the equations out and expected us to grasp them intuitively. I asked questions and muddled my way through, but as the year went on, it was clear I was slipping. Math started to give me anxiety.

I did very poorly that year; my grade was so low that the school did not let me advance to the next math class in the sequence. Instead, for 7th grade, I was placed in a class called “Remedial Math.” I wasn’t sure what “remedial” meant, but I figured it out on the first day of school by taking a look at my classmates: the class was full of the kids I saw smoking in the dugouts after school—the kids who were absent 30% of the year, who often wore the same clothes for days in a row, looked dirty, and used bad language; the kids my mom probably wouldn’t have let me hang around with. As I hunkered down at my desk that first day, I thought, “Ah, I see. Remedial Math is for the misfit kids.”

Destroyed Interest

That year didn’t go very well. The teacher was a stern woman who seemed to loathe the students; she was probably forced to teach the class and resented having to deal with the “bad apple” kids. She taught math in an extremely mechanical way with little explanation beyond bare necessities. I remember she sat perched upon a stool at the front of the class with a bag of candy. She’d drill us relentlessly with oral repetition; if we got an answer correct, she would pelt us with a piece of candy (I say “pelt” because that’s what it was—she intentionally threw the candy fast and hard enough that it was more like being hit with candy than given it). If we got the answer wrong, we got nothing. It was very Pavlovian.

Needless to say, 7th grade destroyed my interest in math. Not only did it destroy my interest, it caused me to start self-labeling: “I’m bad at math.” “Math isn’t my subject.” “I hate math.” I began a negative internal dialogue that stayed with me for years.

When I went into 8th grade, it was time to start algebra. By this time, I was clueless. I was completely lost. I had retained so little from 6th and 7th grade that 8th-grade algebra seemed like a foreign language to me. I remember my ragamuffin friend and I stole the teacher’s answer key book off her desk and used it for several weeks until the teacher caught on (she asked if anyone knew an answer, and I gave her the answer with the remainder out to the fourth decimal place and I remember seeing high eyebrows raise and I realize I’d overplayed my hand). My friend and I were busted and had detention for a week.

Thankfully, this teacher was very invested in what she was doing, and she forgave my trespass and worked hard with me the rest of the year. I passed her class with a C- and a somewhat coherent view of what algebra was all about.

Renewed Interest… Maybe?

When I started high school, my guidance counselor wanted to put me in geometry. I freaked out. I had barely passed algebra and was terrified of learning something new. No way was I taking geometry! I thus signed up for Algebra 1A instead, which was basic introductory high school-level algebra.

I remember my 9th-grade teacher was a good and gentle man who was fresh out of college and had never taught in a classroom before. This actually worked to my benefit; he wasn’t jaded from years of the grind and still possessed that starry-eyed idealism that makes men and women want to teach to begin with. He was able to explain concepts in a way I understood and took the time to reinforce what we’d learned to make sure I got it. I would not go so far as to say I started to like math, but I didn’t hate his class. I came out of 9th grade with a solid B-. I took a crack at his geometry class sophomore year and got a B- as well.

In those days, the state only required two years of math in high school, so after sophomore geometry, I stopped taking math. I was so relieved I would never have to deal with it again! I happily gave myself over to taking classes like jewelry, pottery, and the creative electives that catered to my artistic brain.

The Value of a Good Teacher

I graduated high school in 1998 and, after some fits and starts and misadventures, applied for admission to Ave Maria College in 2002. Imagine my dismay when Ave told me I didn’t take enough math in high school and needed a college-level math course! I just about hyperventilated. Not only did I still consider math “not my subject,” but I hadn’t so much as done a single equation in four years. How was I supposed to pick up the dreaded math again after all that time? The subject that led to anxiety since 6th grade!?

Fortunately, I had an excellent mathematics professor. I don’t recall his name; he was an adjunct. I can still see him, though. He was a mild-mannered, older gentleman with a close-cropped gray hair, two-piece suit and a bow tie. He was a brilliant mathematician, but more than that, he was an excellent teacher. He knew how to explain the concepts he was demonstrating, knew how to field questions from students, and knew how to “read the room” to gauge if his listeners were ready to move on or needed more explanation.

I started to get math, like, to really get it. I did my homework for his class eagerly. And I started scoring in the 90s! You can imagine how that built my confidence. By the end of that year, I was doing math equations on a level I never imagined possible. I was a math whiz.

Erasing the Negative Self-Talk

That year of college changed my approach to math. I didn’t have to take any more of it (as my major was history), but I never again thought of myself as “bad at math” or considered my math skills “remedial.” Even if I never took another math class, it broke that negative self-talk that had plagued me since middle school. As it turned out, I wasn’t really “bad at math”; all I needed was the right instructor.

What is the lesson in this story? Simply this: We are seldom inherently disposed to succeed or fail in a certain subject. Sure, you might have kids that are more artistically gifted or kids that are more left-brained and logical, but that doesn’t equate to them necessarily being “bad” at other subjects. A child’s negative self-talk about a subject generally grows out of specific bad experiences—a poorly written textbook, a dislikeable tutor, a disorganized schedule, etc.

Because children tend to internalize everything, they don’t think, “I think I need a textbook with a more pedagogically friendly approach”; they think, “I stink at math.” This can wreak havoc on their academic self-esteem and make them averse to opening themselves up to new academic experiences. As parents, we ought to help our children develop a healthy attitude towards these kinds of setbacks so they don’t oppress themselves with labels like the ones I gave myself for years and years.


One final note: If you yourself continue to have negative self-talk about a certain subject as an adult, it’s not too late to turn that around. Maybe relearn the subject with your child as they learn it for the first time. Just because you are homeschooling doesn’t mean you have to know everything. You can learn alongside your child, experiencing education right beside them.

Any subject can be enjoyable if it is taught properly.

What is your experience? Do you have tips to share? I invite you to join us in our Catholic Homeschool Connections Community and start a conversation.

0 0 votes
Article Rating

Resources to help you in your Catholic homeschool…

Catholic Homeschool Classes Online

Homeschooling Saints Podcast

Good Counsel Careers

The Catholic Homeschool Conference

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get updated every month on all the latest Homeschooling Saints podcast episodes and new blog posts

Ready to Get Started?

Homeschooling can seem daunting at first, but take it from us: The joy and freedom you gain from homeschooling far outweighs the challenges.

With flexible online classes, passionate instructors, and a supportive community at your back and cheering you on, there’s no limits to where your homeschooling journey can take your family! 

Sign up today!

Pin It on Pinterest