Two dozen teachers, most of them from secondary schools in Prince George's County, went back to school in a downtown Washington classroom for the past two weeks to bone up on their math. As part of the IBM-sponsored seminars, aimed at improving teaching skills, they were asked to describe what "math anxiety" means to them.
"Geometry," declared one teacher.
"The time element," said Lavonne Radonovich, a newly graduated teacher from Frederick County. "They always want you to come up with the answer in a short period of time."
"It's hearing that math is hard, that math is boring," said Lorraine Skidmore, an elementary resource teacher from Prince George's.
Teachers commonly take training in the summer, but this year, in the wake of several national reports singling out math and science instruction as a major weakness in American education, area school systems are trying a wide range of new programs to enhance the skills of teachers in those critical subjects.
The two-week seminar, held at an International Business Machines Corp. training facility at 18th and I streets NW, showed teachers techniques used by the giant computer company to train its own employes.
The seminars focused on issues related to the teaching of math and science. In addition to their anxieties, the teachers talked about the use of graphics in classroom presentations and discussed "conceptual learning styles"--the idea that people learn the same things differently, some being visually oriented and others more able to learn in sequence.
Elsewhere in the area, Arlington County will be offering a new 16-hour course in mathematics problem-solving for elementary school teachers next month, with overcoming math anxiety as a major course theme.
And in the District, the school system is running a free, month-long course for secondary math teachers in advanced new programming techniques for computers in the classroom, offered in conjunction with the University of the District of Columbia.
Successful participants will receive three graduate credits for the course and will get the use of a small home computer, "on a long-term loan," to continue their skills, said Bess Howard, assistant director of resource development for mathematics.
The problem with math teachers is that there are not enough of them and the shortage is getting worse, said Jane Hill of the Reston-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. As a result, school systems are increasingly forced to assign teachers who are not certified in math to some math classrooms, she said. In Prince George's, for example, of the about 270 teachers of math, about 12 percent are not math-certified, county math supervisor Conrad Seeboth said.
In addition, Hill said, "There are so many elementary school teachers who are pretty good teachers but have so little math background they didn't have to have college algebra. These teachers do not have enough math to even appreciate where their students are going in math."
Comments from some of the teachers at the IBM math anxiety class seemed to underscore Hill's point.
"I couldn't tell you about 'real math': that's a mystery, something that I never studied," one District elementary teacher, who declined to give her name to a reporter afterward, told the class. "I only know children's math, a little algebra, a little adding, a little subtracting--you know."
"I strongly believe that a large number of elementary teachers are math anxious," said Carolyn Smith, who will be teaching in the Arlington County program for math teachers next month.
Half of the course time will be spent by teachers actually working out the kind of math word problems that seemed traumatic to many of the teachers when they themselves were students. The idea is help the teachers "gain some confidence in their own ability to solve problems," Smith said.
At the IBM seminar, teachers got a look at what today's private sector requires of public education.
"I'm of the opinion that schools need to be treated as businesses," said Martha Brown, a Surrattsville High School math teacher. "There are things that businesses do to get people to produce. Our product is students who have marketable skills," said Brown, who will be responsible for developing the skills of Surrattsville's math teachers next year as "teacher coordinator," Prince George's tentative step toward the "master teacher" concept.
Like other teachers from the financially strapped Prince George's system, Brown was impressed with the resources that IBM employed in teaching and envied the small class sizes they had to work with.
"Look at this board, these seats," said Brown, pointing to the chalkless multicolored writing on the blackboard and squeezing a her padded swivel chair. "But we realize that IBM has money to provide this, and they realize we have limitations," Brown said.
The IBM program began in pilot form at Surrattsville High last September, after IBM senior instructor Ron Simmons learned that the county might be interested in having company representatives come into the schools to talk to teachers as well as students. The summer program was fit into the regular teaching duties of Simmons and other instructors at the Field Engineering Division's National Capital Education Center.
Simmons said that having a continual contact between the teachers and IBM would add credibility to teachers' efforts to convince students of the importance of science and math studies to their future careers. The teachers, Simmons said, left the seminar excited and clutching a stack of business cards.
"The average educator starts in grade school, goes to graduate school and that's it, that's their life," Simmons said. "Everyone runs field trips for students, very few run field trips for teachers."