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Teaching math and challenging gender stereotypes, one equation at a time

Volunteer Emily Hirsch teaching math in Zambia

“You teach English and mathematics? That’s unusual for Zambia,” a friendly man I met while traveling back to my site said the other day. 

Later I thought to myself, did you mean that teaching English and math is rare for Zambia or rare for a woman in Zambia? Does it even have anything to do with the combination of the two subjects or instead just that a woman is teaching math, period? 

I absolutely understood this man’s curiosity and the gendered implications behind it. I will likely be the only female math teacher my Grade 9 class will have for the rest of their secondary education and, if they make it that far, higher education. I’ve been with them for almost two years now and from the beginning felt obligated to treat teaching math as a feminist project. 

My primary assignment is teaching English and that has been a major, important component of my service. However, in the Peace Corps projects often don’t go exactly as planned. In fact, they never do. I didn’t anticipate I’d be teaching math, but once I spent a Saturday practicing adding fractions in the sand with 15-year-old Fridah, I knew I wanted to continue working with these kids to solve problems. 

Teaching Grade 8 Math under the mango tree.
Teaching Grade 8 math under the mango tree.

From a young age, girls are told that they can’t do math as well as boys. And while that message isn’t always articulated explicitly, it’s very clear when they notice who becomes an accountant or doctor and who becomes a secretary or nurse. Or who teaches upper level math and who doesn’t. 

By teaching Grade 8 and 9 math, beyond delivering a curriculum, I hoped that my presence as a woman in the room during math class, a space and time typically reserved for men, would matter. Representation is key, especially with teenagers who may or may not continue with school next year due to low literacy levels, test scores, lack of funds or pregnancy. Not surprisingly, these issues disproportionately affect girls. 

I’d be satisfied if after having a female math teacher just one girl thinks she can pursue a career she didn’t realize she could before or if one boy respects his future wife’s intellect and celebrates it. 

Yes, many of my students, girls and boys, went from hardly being able to add fractions to now coasting through simultaneous equations and Pythagoras's theorem. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud to see girls raising their hands just as much as boys, and girls and boys pushing through adolescent awkwardness together to tirelessly help each other succeed. But rather than some expert technical teaching methods, I’m fairly certain that the greatest portion of their progress came from them, not me. 

All they needed was an environment in which to freely thrive, one that encouraged collaboration and as many questions as possible; the drive was already there. They are the ones who plead with me to give them more homework problems. Girls and boys tell me, “Madam, you wrote that problem wrong.” They ask where that number came from and what we should do with it. 

We've played games and discussed the difference between an inclusive and exclusive tax and studied for the national exams, but a thread I’ve seen every day is a group of kids taking ownership of their education. They know what it means, in a way I never will, for education to no longer be an option. So they grasp it with everything they have.