Maths Anxiety By Mark Daly

Photo by Dustin Belt on Unsplash

It’s the 1980s. I am sitting at a desk in primary school. It’s senior infants. Although I was an easy-going kid, I would get frustrated that I could not do maths and got upset about that. 

There were five of us at the desk. The teacher is handing out copy books. we were doing maths work. She asked us who had finished the and they all put up their hands, and then she asked who had not finished the work, and I put up my hand. The teacher said that they would wait until Mark is finished. 

It took me some time to finish the work and the rest of the class sat there and waited until I was finished. We were all getting ready to go home, when one of my classmates turned to me and said, “I know you are not very good at maths Mark, but If I am late for football practice I won’t forgive you”. I said “I thought we were friends” and he replied, that “Just because we are classmates doesn’t mean that we are friends”. 

In primary school, there was a substitute teacher from the North and she was fiery. I remember my mother saying to me to tell her that I just couldn’t do the maths exercises. “That is just an excuse!”, the teacher bellowed. I broke down and said it wasn’t fair and she bellowed back that life wasn’t fair. 

In primary school, we had a teacher in first class who had a short temper. One day while doing maths class she put a sum on the board and I worked it out. So I walked to the board. by the time I got there, I had forgotten the answer. I could see the steam coming out of her ears because I was taking too long to come up with the answer. She erupted, “No the answer is not on the ceiling, no, it’s not on the floor”. I had to bite my lip to stop crying. She barked at me to sit down. Another girl who for some reason this teacher did not like got up and she did the sum correctly. Then the teacher looked at me and while I was sobbing said, “See, that wasn’t too difficult was it?” and added something like “if you just use your brain and think….” 

Maths homework was so fraught that by the point that I got to learning fractions and decimals that my mother threw her hat at it. “I can’t help you because it’s going to make me upset and you are going to get upset”, she said. 


Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

So I had to go into primary with my maths homework incomplete. And it went uncorrected. The 4th class teacher piled on the homework and because it took so long, almost half it went uncorrected and don’t think she cared. My family and I moved after I finished 6th class, but it didn’t take long for dyscalculia to raise its head in secondary school. 

I am in a room with the remedial teacher in the first year and she said: “well because your English is good and you write well and your recall is good. You don’t need support”. 

I am sitting in first year maths and we are doing logic. This before we were put into our groups. Pass, Honours and Ordinary. I ended up in Ordinary. We are doing logic. I am not understanding what is going on. So the teacher says if you keep getting the answer wrong I am going to have to ask you to leave….and then said you are obviously struggling so I think it would be best if you go down to the study hall. 

One week after I started secondary school the bullying started from a classmate in my year. He was expelled after bullying other students and teachers. He took his bullying right into the exam hall at the end of the 1st year. I ended up with a C in maths in the interlevel, which was really an achievement. 

I am in third year and we are doing Commerce class and we had to do profit and loss exercise for homework. I couldn’t do the classwork and my mother again said, “Look just go in and tell them you can’t do it”. So I did and I ended up with detention. What happened next is easily the worst thing I ever went through. We had done no prep for algebra in 3rd year. 4th year maths day one was algebra. I put my hand up and I start to say that I don’t really understand. So the teacher goes over to the side of the room and starts to gesticulate to bring my bag and chair and tells me to hurry up. He is getting on with the class and I am trying to get across something that I don’t really understand. Again he starts gesticulating but then I realise he wants me to move my desk around to face the wall. He says I don’t want to look at you, hear from you or speak to you for the rest of the year. That is your place for the rest of the year now turn around and face the wall. I was deeply upset about that. I went home and told my mother what happened . she spoke to the teacher. I got a different book from the rest of the class. He made it clear that I was on my own. That I would correct my own work. 

I really did not like going to school and I was forever moaning about it. In 5th year I had to make a decision about whether I did maths for the leaving cert and I talked things over with my mother. We both agreed to go down the exemption road. So my mother wrote to the department of education and I got an exemption from doing leaving cert maths. 

In third level, I did basic computer courses but there was no support at all. I had to ask my dad to go and talk to the remedial teacher in my old school which he did and the letter stated that I would need extra time and that they were aware that I had motor apraxia and dyscalculia. Looking back, knowing and understanding are two different things. I have a lot of certs for basic computers and a diploma. Due to dyscalculia I failed accountancy but did the exam anyway. I struggled with high-end maths and there was no support in college back in the 1990s. I then did further education Fas courses with Work experience tacked on and we had to do Mock interviews. And I liked helping other people who were stuck. A fas person gave out to me about that. I ended up doing the same exam that I failed in college and failed it all over again. As there would have been very little understanding about dyscalculia my mother said don’t mention disability or dyscalculia. 


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When college ended the job hunt began and applied for office jobs. But I didn’t know that office jobs include maths. I took the state exam for the civil service but I became undone at the timed maths part. I failed that. I had an interest in working for the county council but was told that I would need 5 passes in the leaving cert and that all of my College certs were obsolete. I ended up volunteering work for Concern worldwide and they were aware that I was working very hard and they came to me and asked me if I would like to carry the float, this meant handling money. So I told my mother about that and she said Go in and tell them you can’t do and she was right. I got into trouble there about a bag of change which was miscounted. It was around this that my father decided to ask questions. One day my father said the following…he said you should write your story. And I said where would I start. So I wrote a lot about Dyspraxia which went into the dyspraxia newsletter but after a while, I decided to shift away from Writing about that. 

I was moving out of the family home in 2017 and came across the assessment that was done in the USA in 1983 and in the final paragraph in the second line it mentioned the word dyscalculia. I had been thinking for a while about going back to education and it had been a 17-year break but I knew if I was going down that road then I would have to be honest that I am learning disabled. 

I have ended up writing about my experiences for NALA and AONTAS, podcasting them also. I have given talks in Universities, ended up on management committees, ran adult groups and been part of a spectrum alliance talk with Dell. I am not going to sugar coat my experiences. Dyscalculia has left me long term unemployed. One of the only interviews I had was for an insurance company. The person said why would someone who doesn’t have leaving cert maths want to work with insurance premiums, which I understood. I was the only one attending Dyspraxia conferences in the room with dyscalculia. 

As you can see I have been on the road a long time. It has taken me a long time to write all of this down and to remember. Neither of my parents is alive to see my return to education or to write what I wrote in NALA. And they would not have understood podcasts. Having dyscalculia means struggling with change, handing over coins to the bank, making sure that all the bags are filled, knowing the exact change for the bus driver. I have had to stand on my own two feet financially and I have done that by repetition and hard work. 

Going back to adult education and being honest about having a learning disability has helped me come to terms with that part of my life. it brought me into contact with other people who also have dyscalculia. I have done courses in Intercultural awareness, personal decision making, WP, spreadsheets, Level 2 maths and I am now doing Remote learning, learning support and maths level 3.

One thought on “Maths Anxiety By Mark Daly

  • February 22, 2021 at 4:00 pm
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    I also have traumatic memeories of being badly taught in primary school. I was brought up to the black board everyday and when it was crystal clear I couldn’t understand ratios or fractions or long division she would poke her knuckle into the side of my head and use her knuckle to knock my head agasint the board and shout ‘Think! Think! Think!’. Very painful and humiliating. When I would cry she would turn me around and make me face my class mates. I had that teacher for two years ages 11 and twelve. I still bump into her today and she smiles and I smile . Whatever, its nice to be nice. But what a crap teacher. Today I am an adult literacy teacher and I thank her for showing me so clearly how NOT to teach. 😉

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