Teaching Through a Lens of Compassion: Strengthening Pre-service Teachers’ Math Muscles

Woman standing in front of chalkboard with muscles drawn on the chalkboard behind her

Imagine you have not thought about mathematics class in over a decade. You vaguely recall how fractions are connected to decimals, and the notion of “Pi” brings something to mind other than apple deliciousness. You have collected all of your mathematical memories and locked them away in a drawer, never to be approached. Every time you feel an inkling of math anxiety, math phobia, or are reminded of math trauma, you brush it away, like you might a pesky mosquito. Until one day, you find yourself studying as a preservice teacher, enrolled in a mathematics content course that you are required to pass to obtain your teaching degree. That is where many of our learners find themselves: face-to-face with their least favorite subject – a seemingly insurmountable barrier blocking their way to success.

We teach a mathematics content course for elementary preservice teachers (PSTs) in a graduate-level teacher education program in Canada. Our students come to us with varying backgrounds; some have recently completed their undergraduate degrees, while others are looking to change their career trajectory. It is clear that PSTs are passionate about teaching, learning, and bringing about change in their future classrooms. Our experiences as educators in this context has shown us the value of encouraging PSTs to share their stories about what propelled them into the world of education while sharing our own stories. Drawing on our own positive educational experiences, our goal is to create a space where PSTs feel they can ask questions and seek support (math-related or otherwise) as they begin their journey through teacher education. By acknowledging the individual experiences PSTs bring, we hope to foster a sense of community where co-construction of knowledge can take place.

Though the inclusion of social and emotional learning (SEL) in mathematics has gained traction via provincial curricula for elementary learners in Ontario (Ministry of Education, 2020) and most recently, grade 9 students (Ministry of Education, 2021), there are limited discussions on the impact of SEL in mathematics for adult learners. This is especially concerning as we have observed that the vast majority of the PSTs who are in our mathematics content courses come with significant shame, trauma, and other negative feelings and experiences associated with mathematics, and their abilities as mathematics learners. Reflecting on our own learning experiences and those of our learners, we designed this course to be less about the acquisition of mathematical content knowledge – we believe all learners are knowers and doers of mathematics – and more about supporting PSTs to refresh both conceptions of mathematics and who they are as mathematics people. Though we did not have the language for it when designing the course five years ago, a fundamental way we did this was by centering SEL in our classrooms.

Khodai (2021) describes “SEL in mathematics [as being] about the exquisite interplay of the discipline of mathematics as an experience, with who we are individually and collectively” (p. 556). With this in mind, this mathematics content course becomes a beautiful dance where our role as teacher educators is to lead PSTs towards their own brilliance as mathematicians. PSTs dissect mathematical concepts while reflecting on collective experiences mired with difficulty, and create new collective experiences where they experience success in mathematics. Many PSTs have long associated “smartness” with mathematical achievement, and for those who have had struggles in the mathematics class, they decidedly feel not smart as mathematics learners. For this reason, highlighting and leveraging aspects of learning they are both interested in and have confidence in becomes critical as we work to unlearn so many years of damaging experiences as mathematics learners. While PSTs might initially feel unsure or, unfortunately, not smart during mathematics class, they DO feel confident and excited about teaching. This is a strength we can use to reframe how they engage with mathematics – they are both educators and learners. Asking questions about what a potential elementary-aged student might find challenging, where a misconception might come up, etc., makes PSTs the expert in the room.

Knowing that many of our students often were denied access to complex mathematics and view mathematics classrooms as negative places, we center healing work in our classrooms. We do this by focusing on nurturing mathematical identities, learning in and from community, and ultimately, making space for PSTs to see success (sometimes for the first time) in mathematics class. Upon reflection, we recognized that many of our teaching practices attend to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s ([CASEL], 2022) components of SEL (see Table 1 for specific examples). The combination of focused attention to SEL and fundamentally taking an asset-based approach to teaching mathematics changes our classroom setting in numerous ways. Validating PST experiences, including (especially) the many years of negative mathematical experiences that haunt them is crucial. We advocate for mathematics class as an emotional space (how often have we been frustrated with a trig identity?) where we can really feel our feelings when doing mathematics, and sometimes this includes walking away.

SEL ComponentExamples
Self-AwarenessAcknowledge different experiences that PSTs have had with mathematics. Cultivate dynamic spaces where PSTs can ask questions and seek help. Incorporate mindful use of instructor language/actions/words. Invite PSTs to complete a reflection activity at the beginning of the course. Provide low-stakes opportunities for PSTs to try questions, revise solutions, and resubmit assignments.
Self-ManagementFoster a consistent environment (e.g., regular assignments, tasks, schedules).Recognize that prior experiences in mathematics may bring up feelings of past anxiety and/or trauma. Incorporate opportunities for goal-setting.
Responsible Decision-MakingDiscuss current pedagogies, issues, and histories in mathematics education. Connect learning tasks to real-life experiences.
Social AwarenessProvide space for collaboration with each other and with the instructor. Incorporate opportunities for co-teaching and peer-teaching.
Relationship SkillsEmbed oral assessments to help PSTs develop effective mathematical fluency. Integrate question annotation to encourage PSTs to think about how they would communicate mathematics to their own students.
Table 1. Examples of SEL Framework in Math Content Course

We have learned that the humanization of this space is novel for PSTs. Empowering PSTs by facilitating our course using an SEL framework has been a positive force in the teacher education program. Our hope through all this is that PSTs leave us with a little more math muscle, fewer math ghost stories, and more tools to address the occasional pesky math mosquito for themselves, and their future students.

Gurpreet Sahmbi is an educator at the University of Toronto in mathematics education and research methods in teacher education. She holds a PhD in curriculum and pedagogy and has extensive experience teaching in postsecondary and K–12 settings. Gurpreet’s scholarship centers on improving access to mathematics for students and teachers alike.

Rachael A. Lewitzky holds a PhD in curriculum and pedagogy from the University of Toronto. She is a postsecondary educator and researcher, with experience teaching in K–12, university, and college settings. Her scholarship focuses on postsecondary education, online learning, mathematics/statistics education, and digital communication.


CASEL. (2022). What is the CASEL Framework? https://casel.org/fundamentals-of-sel/what-is-the-casel-framework/

Khodai, H. (2021). Belonging through social emotional learning. MLTL, 114(7), 556-558.

Ministry of Education. (2020). Elementary mathematics. https://www.dcp.edu.gov.on.ca/en/curriculum/elementary-mathematics

Ministry of Education. (2021). Mathematics: Grade 9 (MTH1W). https://www.dcp.edu.gov.on.ca/en/curriculum/secondary-mathematics/courses/mth1w