Tips from a High School Math Teacher

In this article, a high school math teacher with a Master's in Pure Mathematics will tell you how to succeed and enjoy math in high school, and why learning mathematics is important even if you pursue something unrelated to math.

By Kaitlin Meyer — January 24, 2023


Tips from a High School Math Teacher

Did you struggle with math in high school? Are you currently struggling with math in high school? Read on to learn how to succeed and enjoy math in high school, about an under-appreciated mathematician, a theory foundational to civilization, and why learning mathematics is important even if you pursue something unrelated to math.

Rhonda Meyer is a high school math teacher at a small private school in Bozeman, Montana. She earned her Master's in Pure Mathematics from U.C. Davis in 1990 and has 33 years of teaching experience. She also has extensive experience in curriculum development, tutoring college-level students, teaching remedial math to college students, and advising a private school as a board member. And yes, she's also my mom. This article presents her advice to math students, especially high school students.

What are the Best Problem-Solving Strategies?

Mathematics is first learned by imitation. Rhonda points out that students are asked to imitate a mathematical process in homework problems and on finals. Sometimes, it’s hard to see the connection between the homework assignment and the lesson when learning a new concept. When struggling, it's best to start by referring back to the lesson and imitating the steps.

Always write down the "given" of the problem and use a table to record givens and results. This will allow you to analyze your answers relative to the information you have quickly.

Sometimes, the answer to a question is known. If you are struggling with a problem, try working backward and meeting your forward progress.

Guess and check. One of the first strategies you learn as a student is still useful far into your math studies. It can be especially useful when taking timed and standardized tests, such as the SAT, as you can quickly see if your answer is right or wrong.

If you are a more advanced math student, learning to abstract is key to understanding and doing well. Instead of simply imitating a process, you will need to abstract the fundamental concepts from each lesson, and you may combine several ideas and methods when solving one problem.

What Should I Do When I Don't Get It?

If you fall behind in class and do not fully understand the content, you need to go in and get help. It might seem like everyone else in the class understands the material just fine, and going in for help is not worth it. Talking to a teacher about your learning can be intimidating, but it will ultimately help you. The teacher will be able to work with you, figure out your learning style, and may even change the class format slightly so that it's easier for you to learn. Advocating for yourself is challenging and scary sometimes, but it's a skill you will have to learn at some point in your life, so you may as well start now.

What Should I Do if I'm Bored?

If you understand all the concepts and have completed all the in-class exercises, you can still spend time in class furthering your knowledge. Rhonda recommends either working on more difficult problems or seeking out students who need assistance and offering to help them. Working on more challenging problems will allow you to develop your critical thinking skills. Helping others solve problems will solidify your knowledge of the concept and help you make friends.

If I Want to Be an Actress, Why Do I Need to Learn Math?

Math, Rhonda says, teaches you how to think logically, not just in terms of math problems but also life problems. If you are planning to be an actress or pursue any other non-math-related career path, you may have more strengths in areas unrelated to math, such as emotional intelligence. While this set of skills is extremely valuable, there will come a time in your life when you need a logical set of problem-solving skills. These will help you navigate financial decisions, job-related decisions, and life decisions. Most decision-making should consider many factors, and math will develop these muscles in your brain.

Why Should I Learn Math if it's Irrelevant?

Many students wonder why they should spend time learning math if they do not plan on becoming a math teacher. After all, they will be allowed to use calculators as adults. In addition to teaching essential decision-making and problem-solving skills, as outlined above, Rhonda points out that knowledge of some mathematical concepts is essential to life as an adult. Knowing how to calculate your taxes, build a budget and stick to it, and navigate difficult financial decisions are all skills that come from a basic understanding of mathematics.

We live in a world where numbers, a data-saturated world, continuously bombard us. Statistics and data play a huge role in news stories, healthcare decisions, business management, and several other areas. Suppose you are trying to evaluate which vitamins to add to your daily diet, how to sleep better, who to vote for, where to shop, or countless other decisions. Rhonda believes a good understanding of statistics is essential in our data-saturated world.

Who is Your Favorite Mathematician?

Rhonda's favorite mathematician is Georg Cantor. Born in 1845 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Cantor made a series of significant discoveries concerning number sets. These, however, were not accepted in his own time. Only after his death did other mathematicians study his work, which became foundational to the field of set theory. He is largely responsible for the concept of infinity, playing a central role in modern mathematics and philosophy.

What are Your Favorite Theorems?

Rhonda's two favorite theorems are the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus and the Pythagorean Theorem. The former is profound and forms the basis for the whole calculus study, but it is also elegantly simple and easy to prove. This makes it an ideal theorem to teach to students. The Pythagorean Theorem was, amazingly, discovered by several different civilizations independently. Today, hundreds of proofs exist for the theorem, showcasing the beauty of mathematics in all its facets.

Why Do You Love Math?

Math is like a puzzle you have to solve, and you are always using your mind and keeping it agile, says Rhonda. She also says that math requires abstraction, which is very useful for problems that you have to face each day. Using the skill of abstraction enables you to remove unimportant details and emotions to make a logical decision. Finally, Rhonda appreciates the community aspect of mathematics: solving problems is a community effort. When solving problems in the context of a community, you learn how to explain things clearly, and how to write, teach and communicate in general.

Is There Any Other Advice You Would Give to Math Students?

Math requires you to do a little work every day instead of a lot at once. As long as you are consistent and seek help when needed, you will succeed in math class and your education.

Kaitlin Meyer

Kaitlin Meyer

Kaitlin Meyer is a Master's student at Ohio State University (OSU), and is writing a thesis on snow microstructure inspired by her love for skiing. She earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Wyoming Catholic College (WCC).
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