#### TechGuruindia

##### Member

A respected math teacher at a K-12 public charter school in Apple Valley, California, Holifield was in steep physical decline.

His students had watched the effects of his disease creep across his body. At first, he stumbled and, his hands weak, relied entirely on teaching assistants to write equations on the board for him. Then, his voice became so feeble he could only be heard with a helpful boost from a microphone. It also amplified his strained breathing and its halting rhythm.

“The biggest core memory for me from Holifield’s class is the sound of his heavy breathing, where he would just, like, stop for a good 10 seconds,” Christina Lynn Wallace, a student of his, says more than a decade later. “We just wouldn't hear him take a breath, and then he'd start again and [we’d] be like, ‘Holy shit. Is he gonna die in our classroom?’”

The school put on a festival to resulting from his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. But within a short span, Holifield would be .

As the U.S. struggles with math instruction, there’s interest in cultural perceptions about who possesses strong math abilities. The concept that certain people are “bad at math” has come in for criticism as . It’s of particular concern for reinforcing inequality in lucrative and vital science, technology, engineering and math careers, since the classification can knock students off the path to those positions. Of course, people also apply the label to themselves, too, thanks to both internal and external factors.

Holifield’s demise became a well-known tragedy in the High Desert, a patch of California desert about halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where he taught at the Academy for Academic Excellence, in part because Holifield was esteemed as a devoted math teacher.

More than a decade later, I tracked down several of his former students. The lesson I learned: A good teacher seems to make a big difference in how students view their math potential and whether they embrace the “not-mathy” label.

## Bedtime Equations

I struck out to interview former students of Holifield after becoming EdSurge’s resident math reporter over the past several years.

Frequently, when I interviewed experts about why math students around the country are struggling, those experts would comment that part of the problem lay in the culture. It’s common for anyone, even teachers, to boast that they aren’t a “math person,” in a way that nobody would proudly proclaim about reading, sources explained. In my favorite phrasing of that view: It’s common for parents — no matter their level of education — to take pride in reading bedtime stories to their children. We don’t have to be convinced it’s important because we intuitively feel that it is. But how many parents are ?

For a long time, I would have said I wasn’t a math person either. Reflecting on my own self-identification, I had a vague sense it had something to do with Holifield’s Algebra II class, which I took in ninth grade. That year, the class watched as his body was ravaged by ALS, and he was replaced, in at least one class, by a substitute teacher who came out of retirement and who didn’t understand the math. I wasn’t particularly mathy before then, but after that, math and I had a no-contact policy that would only reverse late in my college career when I became interested in economics and statistics.

But in checking my memory against others as part of this reporting process, another narrative emerged.

Holifield’s ordeal had not seemed to push many students away from math. The opposite: Holifield himself seemed to have a talent for connecting with students, according to the half-dozen former students I interviewed. That was true even — or perhaps especially — when they didn’t think of themselves as “math people.”

“He was a whole person,” says Natalie Snyder, a teacher’s assistant for Holifield shortly before his death. He was skilled at building relationships with students that pulled them into math, regardless of whether they identified as skilled in manipulating numbers, she says.

And even when Holifield was suddenly dying from ALS, that remained true, she adds.

For Wallace, who remembered his stuttering breaths, Holifield’s decline was upsetting. “I was friends with his daughter, Brianna, so I'm sitting here watching her dad die in front of me,” she says. But that upset didn’t necessarily transfer onto math. “It was traumatic, but not from a scholastic perspective,” she says.

That self-perception was deeper and older. Wallace was a non-math person already by the time she took his class, she says.

Wallace has a good memory for numbers, she says. She can recall her debit card number or the security code to a place she stayed a week back, showing that her brain isn’t allergic to numbers. But identifying as a “non-math” person gives her an out for when she feels insecure about solving a math equation. She’s slow with math, she adds, but she’s also a slow reader. While she’s never “felt convicted” about not liking math, she would feel embarrassed about not being a reader, she says.

So revisiting this episode, what most sticks out is that Holifield’s admiring students still felt pulled in by his magnetism. Their own feelings about math could be influenced by a teacher. But they came from somewhere deeper.

This appeared to be true of my own experience, once the memories were knocked loose. My math phobia was older, if originally more mild. Like in many other cases, it was born of a feedback loop. Debilitating anxiety and poor math performance , a pattern that was set by the time I reached Holifield’s class. In early middle school, by the time my parents struggled to assist with math homework, I began to compare myself to my maternal grandfather, Aladin Perkins, a retired electrical engineer who had little patience for dullards. When I once asked him to explain a problem to me, I was in awe. It seemed as though the math poured out of him like a sieve. I figured I was slow in math, and I’d have to look elsewhere to flourish. Less attention to math meant average scores and more distaste for the subject, which never felt practical to me anyway.

In the most common way to understand the phenomenon, worrying about math causes a student to avoid it and therefore slows down their improvement in math, , an associate professor of developmental psychology at Florida State University. Meanwhile, poor performance feeds the developing anxiety.

So how does someone become a non-math person? People tend to get pushed away from math during adolescence or college, says Dana Miller-Cotto, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Education. Until third or fourth grade most children see themselves as a math person, she says. Younger children tend to overestimate their ability, but by that time they start to compare themselves to others. That’s about the time that the “implicit messages” those students receive from parents and teachers — who may respond more favorably to some students than others by, say, calling on some more often, or who may express a distaste for math — tend to take hold, she says.

But in a sense, American culture values qualities it affiliates with math too much. For some reason, it’s a common belief that everyone who goes into fields such as math, economics or computer science is brilliant, probably in part because those fields are financially rewarding, Miller-Cotto says. Some students seem to pick up a misconception that math is a knack instead of a process, she adds. Those who go into these high-paying fields must be inherently smart. It goes along with a belief that being good at math means you get every answer correct, she says. It’s as if those people were born with a calculator in their head, rather than simply being engaged in performing math a lot.

Ultimately, that seems to push away students — especially — by making them feel they don’t belong to the “math community,” Miller-Cotto says.

But what about how students think about themselves? Some have suggested that how well a student does in math indirectly affects whether they see themselves as competent in it. What really matters, in this view, is how interested they are in math and how much external recognition they get.

Miller-Cotto suggests that teachers have a lot of influence. It’s important to ensure messages or opportunities to engage in math are equal for everyone they teach, she says. It’s not about telling every student they are a math person, she says, but in finding ways to engage students more.

Using this view, according to his former students, Holifield was an expert at generating interest and giving validation.

But for his students, the shelf-life of that interest varied.

## Tracking Math Identities

Snyder, Holifield’s former teaching assistant, says she identifies as a non-math person. By the time she reached fourth grade, she perceived herself as having “weak” math skills. Part of the problem was that she hadn’t memorized her times tables, which made her feel slow in math class.

That caused insecurity, she says.

Still, Holifield helped make math practical for her when she took Algebra II with him, she says. He explained how math was useful for real jobs, such as those who test the level of land for construction or create maps, and how as students they could already perform that math. It was fun, she recalls. But more than that, he was attentive and made her feel that math was valuable.

But a case of “senioritis” caused her to drop out of high school calculus. In college, she had limited exposure to math. She started studying organic chemistry but became overwhelmed, and she stopped out of higher ed altogether. She later picked up a degree in public administration from Chico State, a four-year university in California.

Felisha Cullum had a favorable view of her math talent.

Cullum took Algebra II and trigonometry with Holifield, who even helped her to become a math tutor, one of her first jobs. She started calculus, but that was the “year he got really bad,” and the class was switched over part-way through to another teacher, once he was medically retired.

Cullum dropped out of calculus after that semester. Eventually, she picked up a graduate degree in clinical mental health counseling from George Fox University, a private Christian college in Oregon, and now works as a play therapy program instructor.

Another former teacher’s assistant, Kreddow Feskens, went further in her math journey. She describes herself as a “math brain.”

Feskens actually declared herself a math major in college. She says that was because of Holifield’s influence. She had taken Algebra I, Algebra II and calculus with him. With the benefit of years of reflection, she says that her interest in math came not from her own innate talent with numbers but from his encouragement. She grew up in a strict household where performing your best was crucial, and Holifield was encouraging and lighthearted and always made her feel like she was her best self, she says.

But the Holifield effect wore off, and Feskens switched her major from math to business, because she thought it would be more practical. These days, she’s a recruiter, and she no longer would describe herself as a math person per se. She thrives with algebra or calculus still, the classes she had Holifield for, but she can struggle with simpler math.

As a former student of Holifield and now a journalist who covers math, I was hit by how responsive people’s beliefs about themselves seem to be. Without encouragement from a gifted teacher, even those who were prone to like math got pulled away from it. Once they were, the identity set in, making it harder to go back to learning math.

Nevertheless, they look back fondly on Holifield.

As an adult, Feskens says she hopes Holifield understood the depth of his impact. She helped organize the school's fundraising event when his disease became advanced, called “Holifalooza.” They didn’t raise much money — perhaps $100 or so — she recalls, but she hopes it left an impression on the man.

“I wish more people were able to experience his teaching,” she says, “and I wish there were more teachers like him.”