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Educator Vanessa Vakharia gives pep-talk on taxes and other math-related matters.

MORGAN HARRIS/Handout

We’re about a month away from the April 30 tax filing deadline and I know a lot of you still have some work to do. Help is at hand. I have asked math educator Vanessa Vakharia to provide a pep-talk to the nation on taxes and other matters related to math, the subject most dreaded by journalists when they were in school. Here’s an edited transcript of a Q&A we did by e-mail recently.

Q: What can you tell us about your background as a math educator?

A: I call myself the Lady Gaga of math education because I want to make it a fun, inclusive space where you can both be your authentic self and enjoy math. Plus, I wear a lot of crushed velvet, so it works. I run The Math Guru, a math and science tutoring studio. I’ve written a kids’ book, Math Hacks, and I also help adults work on their own math issues through my podcast, Math Therapy.

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Q: It’s tax season – can you offer some encouragement to get people through the process of filing their return?

A: Tax season uses very little math. Don’t think of taxes as calculating, think of it as compiling. Seriously, this is all about gathering info: Pick a physical place to dump all your tax-related stuff (receipts, bank statements, etc.), and a virtual space to dump all your tax-related stuff (e-mails, electronic receipts, etc.). The only math you need is addition, and you can use a calculator to type in the totals required on your tax form. Do not feel guilty about outsourcing. I’m a math educator and I don’t do my own taxes. I outsource because I just have other things I would rather spend time on.

Q: I mostly passed high school math by the thinnest of margins, and so many others tell me the same thing. Were we all just bad at math, or do math teachers bear some of the blame?

A: Math teachers are incredibly under-resourced, so we can’t really put the blame on them. Plus, teachers’ college never teaches them about math trauma and math anxiety. The socio-emotional aspect of learning in math is just as important as the actual math content. This shows up not only in the classroom, but later in life: People with higher math confidence tend to make better financial and health decisions. I think a big part of this has to do with media perceptions of math (this is what I wrote my master’s thesis on), which tell us that only “geniuses” can do math (think Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting). As a woman of colour who also happens to be in a rock band, I decided to enter the field of math education to show young girls that they can follow whatever dreams they like and love math. The two are not mutually exclusive. So whatever you look like, whatever you love to do, you are also totally capable of doing math.

Q: As our world becomes more technology-based, have math skills become almost as important as communication skills?

A: I think math literacy is more important than hard math skills. We don’t need everyone to know how to do calculus or code. We do need people to feel confident interacting with numbers and interpreting them properly. People think math is all about weird formulas, but really math is all about spotting patterns, thinking creatively, and problem solving.

Q: We’re often told STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers are where the jobs are. What do you say to kids and parents who think there’s no hope for them in STEM professions because they’re bad at math?

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A: Math is one of the first things that many kids are told that they can’t do. This makes them wonder, ‘if I’m bad at math, then what else am I bad at?’ That feeling leads to kids who are more fearful and less willing to try, because they don’t want to be shamed for being bad or failing at something, like they often are in math class. We need to get rid of that shame associated with being wrong. Math is about making mistakes, failing and being curious enough to keep on trying. Kids who struggle in math class often just need some confidence and someone who can explain the concepts to them in a way that makes sense to them.


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