Female math teachers’ early influences pivotal, study says

Sandra Stewart-Ximines, a high school math teacher in Perris, is animated and energetic as she stands before her students teaching them the ins and outs of algebra.

High school math teacher and La Sierra doctoral grad Sandra Stewart-Ximines loves teaching the ins and outs of algebra. (Photos by Natan Vigna)

She captures her students’ interest by showing them how math can be used in everyday life, including in making fun calculations such as how long it will take a ball to fall to the ground during a soccer game if a goalie kicks the ball at a given upward velocity per second. She teaches them through song and collaborative team activities.

But she is part of a disturbingly small group. According to 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Labor, women comprise more than half of the population and account for almost half the workforce, yet they make up less than one-fourth of the science, mathematics and engineering labor pool.

Meanwhile, 76 percent of elementary and secondary school teachers in 2011-12 were female, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, although apparently few specialize in, or have confidence in teaching science and mathematics. This data is juxtaposed with current research showing that girls in the United States are now doing as well as boys in mathematics and on standardized tests.

Stewart-Ximines, a June doctoral graduate of La Sierra University’s School of Education cites these statistics in her dissertation. Her study aims to understand the personal and educational influences that compelled 20 female math teachers she surveyed to pursue career paths in a male dominated field. Her work provides key information for educators about best ways to inspire a new generation of girls in their ability to do math and stimulate their interest in mathematics and science careers.

Stewart-Ximines’ research took place over six years and involved interviews and surveys of math teachers at universities, high schools and middle schools around the southwest. Her qualitative phenomenological study is titled “Female Mathematics Teachers’ Perceptions of how their Life and Educational Experiences Influenced Academic and Career Choice” and it strives to answer two questions: how did the participants perceive the influence of their life experiences in their decision to pursue a career in mathematics, and how did they perceive the influence of their educational experience in that choice?

The interview subjects’ life stories revealed five primary emerging themes related to their career choices: strong family support, belief and self-confidence in their mathematics ability, significant teacher influence, early exposure to STEM subjects, and the impact of a consciousness of their gender.

Stewart-Ximines’ research showed that teachers and mothers were among the most influential agents in determining the respondents’ early self-belief, or self-efficacy in their mathematics competency as well as their interest in attending college and teaching math. In fact, 65 percent of respondents perceived their math teachers as the most influential in their career choice, and 90 percent said that of their family connections, mothers carried the greatest influence. Fathers came in second as most influential followed by supportive spouses and parental expectation about college attendance.

“She always explained division in a different way because of the way they learned it in [mother’s home country]. And it was always weird to me that it actually worked,” states one respondent who commented about her mother’s influence despite a 6th grade education. “So she remembered those simple things, and she tried to teach me.” 

In collecting data, Stewart-Ximines asked respondents to recall one critical incident that they perceived as influential in their career choice.

A high school geometry and engineering teacher said she was inspired to enter the teaching field because of the poor educational experience her twin sons had in middle school with a particular math teacher. Another teacher from an Eastern European country described how she used mathematics to escape communism and political conflict.

Some respondents cited critical incidences that could have derailed their career plans. But perseverance and self-efficacy in their abilities helped them stay the course.

Based on her research, Stewart-Ximines believes it is essential to imbue young girls early in life with confidence in their ability to learn math and science as it becomes increasingly difficult to inspire such confidence in later years.

Verbal persuasion is a confidence builder in young girls, Stewart-Ximines said. “When a teacher influences girls by saying, ‘you can do it,’ this really helps them,” she said. “Teachers are huge.” A foundation of self-confidence is essential. As Stewart-Ximines points out in her dissertation, negative stereotypes about the capabilities of women in male-dominated science and math fields can affect a female’s self-belief.

One’s home environment is also crucial, she discovered. “For teachers who lived in an environment where math and science were important, it became a part of their lives and they lost the fear, their low self-belief,” Stewart-Ximines said. Even teachers whose parents lacked a college education but frequently engaged in mathematical activities, such as calculating gas costs or household budgets, were influenced by those activities, she said.

In terms of gender consciousness, some respondents were aware of the shortage of females teaching math and of the stereotypes that relegate females to other careers, but they felt that these situations had little or no bearing on them. “Each of these teachers felt very competent and equally skilled regardless of their gender,” Stewart-Ximines writes.

Stewart-Ximines has taught mathematics for the past 10 years at Tomas Rivera Middle School and Citrus High School in the Val Verde Unified School District. She also holds an MBA in finance from La Sierra University and a master’s degree in education also from La Sierra. Her background includes serving as an accounting and finance lecturer at the University of Technology in Kingston, Jamaica.

Her roles as a female math teacher and as a parent of two daughters, ages 19 and 10, helped to inspire Stewart-Ximines’ interest in the topic. So did her experience as a student -- throughout her entire educational career Stewart-Ximines had only one female math teacher. “Becoming a female math teacher was a deliberate attempt to become a role model who might be able to provide a sense of hope for the female students in mathematics,” she says in her dissertation.

Stewart-Ximines’ own interest in numbers took root at age 8 when her grandfather, Caleb Brown, began teaching her the calculations he used in his work for the Ministry of Agriculture in Jamaica where Stewart-Ximines lived with her grandparents. Brown served as a middleman between the government and the coffee and cocoa bean farmers. He paid them an allotment of government money for the beans they produced, a tedious process that involved measuring the beans in boxes and calculating the cost based on the going rate.

“I had to do it until it was correct at all times,” Stewart-Ximines said. “I became very proficient in fractions because I had to know that ¾ + ½ is 1 ¼ without a calculator. That’s where my passion for numbers started.” Additionally, she experienced challenges along her educational path in learning mathematics and had to teach herself algebra. “The teachers’ delivery methods were not compatible with my learning style. This is one of the main reasons I went into mathematics so that I could support students who may learn a little differently from the rest.”

Stewart-Ximines will discuss her research findings with Val Verde administrators who have developed a science, technology, engineering, arts and math, or STEAM program at the district which will involve teaching across disciplines and focusing on project based learning. Her recommendations include creating programs in the community that promote STEM education and that provide internships and mentoring for girls. “The school district can create professional development programs for teachers and train them specifically how to handle the delicate lives of these young minds,” she said.

“It’s not about the money,” Stewart-Ximines said, acknowledging she could earn more in the corporate world. “It’s about seeing them succeed and come back years later and say, ‘you’re the best teacher,’” she said. “I’m passionate about teaching because of the students. I like to see students achieve and move from one stage to another.” 

  • Last update on  September 18, 2014