Math homework almost broke me

I wasn’t prepared for a pandemic — for staying at home all the time. And I definitely wasn’t prepared for my kids’ distance learning.

In particular, I wasn’t ready for my fourth-grade son’s math. He gets frustrated with math during the best of times. But he’d gotten used to how his teacher demonstrated the concepts in the classroom. For the most part, we had few problems with him doing his math homework aside from not really wanting to.

But distance learning had him in tears. New concepts are taught by a semi-interactive online learning tool. It’s done in a style that’s different from his teacher’s style. And my son can’t just raise his hand when he needs help. He can’t ask the system to explain it differently. He has to save his questions and ask during virtual office hours — or turn to Mom and Dad.

It broke my heart to see him in tears. It frustrated me that even though the school was doing its best to keep learning going and to be flexible, it just wasn't working for a kid like ours who learns differently.

But the thing that really broke me was the fact that I couldn’t help him. I just couldn’t understand the methods they used. And it made it clear to me that I’m not a teacher.

That show on TV where adults compete with fifth graders popped into my mind. Surely, surely, I’m smarter than my fourth grader. I was good at math in school. I took a lot of it in college. I’m a former programmer. I use math all the time! But I couldn’t teach my kid how to divide two-digit numbers.

His frustration started with tears and eventually turned into throwing papers, stomping, yelling, and growling that he couldn’t seem to shut off.

In response, I got really angry with him. Like, really angry. The anger wasn’t about his not knowing how to do the math, but about his behavior. My own hurt pride at not knowing how to teach him added fuel.

There was yelling from both of us. It was not my finest parenting moment. I missed that he was having a meltdown and reacted like he was being willful and disrespectful.

When we both cooled down, I sat with him and started to show him how to do long division. He stopped me right away and said, “No, no, Daddy. We do upside-down division in school. I don’t know how to do it, but I know that it looks different than yours does.”

I had no idea what upside-down division was. I looked at the examples in his math instruction, but I couldn’t figure out how to set the problem up or which end to start at. I had nothing. I tried and tried until I hit the point of exasperation. This was not how I learned to do math.

Finally, I gave up trying to figure it out and decided that I needed to go back to fourth grade. I have a learning disability, and I learn best by watching. So my son and I sat down and watched some videos on Khan Academy.

Lo and behold, there’s a video with upside-down division explained step by step on the whiteboard. It’s pretty easy and efficient. And I didn’t need to teach it to my son — I learned it with him.

Learning upside-down division didn’t address the whole problem, though. My wife and I both work from home, and we just can’t spend as much time as we’d like to on supporting our son’s distance learning.

My wife actually was a classroom teacher for many years. But even though she’s trained and skilled in teaching math to kids, she works more hours than I do. It’s up to me to deal with the tears, the frustration, and the feelings of inadequacy that come from not knowing how to do my kid’s math.

I’m sure it won’t be the last time we run into this. Next time, though, I hope I don’t let my own emotions get the best of me when he’s melting down over math. Maybe we can both give ourselves a pass. I’m not a teacher, after all. And nobody knows how to do this in the time of COVID-19.


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