Sunday, August 5, 2012

3-minute conversations: What do you do?

I got my hair cut yesterday. I don't like getting my hair cut. I think it's partially because it means I have to make small talk with a stranger, and I'm really bad at small talk. I'm ok for about three minutes and then I run out of things to say.

Which brings me to my conversation with the lovely girl who was forced to cut my lion mane hair yesterday.

We somehow got on the subject of high school, so I asked where she graduated from and was delighted to hear that she attended the school I'll be teaching at this year.
This is what the poor hair dressers face.
Yes, I tip well.

"That's great! That's where I teach!"

Cue look of How old are you exactly?

"Cool. What do you teach?"

"I teach math."

Cue look of I think I'm going to vomit all over your wet head.

"Oh, I'm sorry.  High school math.  Ugh.  I hated math.  I was terrible at it.  I didn't even take it junior and senior year.  All I need math for is addition and subtraction and maybe multiplication and division.  But, that's what a calculator is for."

Aaaaand...we made it to a whopping 2 minutes and 58 seconds!

There were so many things I wanted to say and ask...but nothing seemed right.

Sadly, I feel like I have conversations like this on a weekly basis.  As soon as (most) people find out I'm a math teacher it's like there's an unspoken wall that just appears.

If you're a math teacher, I'm guessing you experience this same phenomenon.  So...what do YOU do when this happens?  I feel like I'm disgracing my beloved field of mathematics by not defending it.  But in the same breath, I don't want to disregard a bad experience in high school.

Does anyone have something witty or funny to say to dispel the tension in moments like these?  I really hope so.  Because I'm clearly clueless as to what the protocol is.  I'd love some help here.  I'm getting tired of 3-minute conversations.


  1. For a minute, I was afraid you were going to say she was in my class. LOL! I usually respond with, "Oh I'm sorry! You should have been in my class. We have a great time!"

    1. What a great response, Cindy! Stealing it. It acknowledges the student's bad experience but doesn't apologize for doing what we love to do. Many thanks. :)

      PS--She was most definitely NOT one of your students! I didn't recognize the teacher's name...thank goodness.

  2. Depending on how deep you want to go with this, you can also ask people to tell you more, "Wow, that sounds like a struggle. What was that like for you?" I think that math has power to make people feel smart or stupid in a way that other subjects don't, and many people have an association with math as "that time when I felt dumb" so it can be helpful to have them explore those feelings, if you have the time and interest in doing it. Generally, I find that there's no way that I can change someone's mind about their feelings towards math - it's just how they feel. And often, it has nothing to do with math, but rather with feeling like that was the time when they failed or felt stupid or were perceived by others to be stupid. So I try not to take it as a personal assault on math. And if you don't want to go there, you can just say, "I'm sorry that you feel that way - I definitely try to make math fun and relevant for my students, and I think that they really enjoy it."

    1. "I think that math has the power to make people feel smart or stupid in a way that other subjects don't..." I couldn't agree more! I think that's why I'm always at such a loss as to what to say, because I feel like I just made someone recall a time when they felt stupid.

      But, I do love the approach of sympathizing with them, while still casting a very positive light on your own class!

  3. I usually change the subject at all costs.

    I probably would have gone with, "well I was bad at hair dressing in high school so I guess we're even!" and then try to move on. Basically say something that confuses them and while they are trying to figure it out, shift the conversation.

  4. I want to hear more. I often tell people that school wrecks it for so many people. I bet she liked numbers and shapes when she was little...

    1. I agree. I wanted to ask when she stopped liking math...but I chickened out.

  5. "i hated english. i was so bad at it! i can barely read. letters, words blah blah! but who needs reading, that's what audiobooks are for!!!"

    I just don't get why the not being good at math thing is totally culturally acceptable (and people are even oddly proud of that fact) but the same statement about something like English would sound ridiculous. maybe we just teach english a whole lot better - instead of focusing on minutiae of grammar, we actually talk about big ideas and encourage creativity.

    i don't have a good response for you, but just wanted to say that literally the EXACT same thing happened to me yesterday while getting my hair cut. except i don't have a lion mane because my hairline is receding.

    1. I just laughed out loud. Exactly--there's such a double-standard in this country. It's ok to be bad at math, but not at English. Maybe it is how we teach English. I wonder...

      There are other topics we do this with, too. My husband and I like to whine about the double-standard people have with weight. See, we probably weigh a combined a 230 lbs. I can't tell you how many times we get, "MAN! You are so thin! Do you eat ANYTHING?" Yet, it would be totally unacceptable for us to turn around and say, "Geeze, you're fat! Whatchya been eating these days?"

      That's my rant that has nothing to do with mathematics.

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