Habits of a Mathematician


One of the things I try to instill in students is that there’s no such thing as “math people.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I’ve never been a math person.” And it’s not just students that say this– it’s parents, administrators, and even other teachers. It’s as if people think that there are some individuals that were born with the ability to think mathematically and others are just out of luck.

Instead, I’d like to propose the idea that mathematical thinking can be developed just like you’d develop athletic skill or musical talent. You practice. And you actively cultivate habits over time that contribute to better mathematical thinking.

Bryan Meyer has come up with a list he calls the “Habits of a Mathematician.” I really loved these when I came across them a few years ago and decided to make some signs of the main habits and hang them on the front wall of my classroom. I reference them as often as I can while I’m teaching. I also like to think that by seeing them on a daily basis, we all (myself included) are reminded that our capacity for mathematical thinking is not fixed, but rather can increase as we seek out ways to develop it.

Would you like a free copy of these signs for your classroom? If so, click here to download.

Twinkle, twinkle

When I first started teaching way back in 2003, I would give students that made an A on a test a “smartie” (a rather unappetizing piece of candy.) It seemed to work pretty well, as students were really happy to get their smartie and some would even hold on to the wrapper and put it in their binder as a sort of trophy. A few years into my career, I switched from smarties to offering students stars if they made an A on a test. These were simple stars cut out of construction paper and laminated. I would give them a star and a Sharpie to write their name on the star, and then I would staple their star to my bulletin board. Over the course of the semester, I would fill the bulletin board with stars, each representing good effort and mastery of content by my students.

When I started teaching at Stony Brook this year, I decided to again use the stars to recognize mastery and hopefully encourage students to care about Geometry.


Man… did it ever work!

These students have blown me away. Seriously, I cannot say how much fun it is to teach these kids. I look forward to going to class every day, and it’s largely because of the way my students respond and interact with me. I cannot imagine doing anything else at this point.

I bought five packs of stars back in August (each pack has 48 stars, so I thought ~250 would be enough for the year.) By the sixth unit, I had bought all the stars I could find locally and ended up ordering more online. I have probably spent upwards of $50 on paper stars… next year I will figure out a more cost effective solution! Ha!

One of the incredibly fun things that has happened as a result of implementing the stars in my classroom is that my students use the stars as mini-billboards. It’s actually HI-LARIOUS.


They use the stars to call each other out. They use the stars to brag. They use the stars to show off their artistic talent.

And, as if all of that wasn’t enough, there is this star. The one that prompted this entire post.


“All Hail, The Queen!
Her Royal Highness, Mrs N. Holm
The Geometric Queen and Royal Ruler of The Stony Brook School
Rest Under the Lord’s Grace”

This star was created a few weeks ago by a student that cracks me up all the time. After receiving his star, I saw him hastily pull a couple of pre-cut paper figures from under his book. Apparently he had come prepared with different sizes of Queen Holm figures because he didn’t know which one would fit on the star better. I honestly don’t think I have ever laughed so much in class before. OH. MY. GOODNESS.


I’m actually quite humbled by how eagerly my students have embraced the stars. It makes me realize how much they long for recognition… how much we all do. I see in so many of them that same hunger I feel to measure up and to feel like I’m “okay.” I love each and every one of my students so much and I wish I had more than a paper star to give them.

As adults, the stars we collect are not necessarily made out of paper, but we nevertheless spend time and effort gathering around us little trophies to show the world and ourselves that we measure up. This world is so, so hard and we often hear the message that we must achieve and accomplish to know that we are okay. But sadly, the harsh truth is that we aren’t okay. But the even better Truth is that if we are in Christ, we are made glorious by the One that has accomplished our salvation! It is something that I still have to remind myself of daily, sometimes minute-by-minute.

I am thankful to have the opportunity to love on these kids and to share life with them. I hope they are having as much fun as I am.