How the Fear of Math Prevented Me from Teaching High School English

When I was hired at McLane High School, back at the end of 2017, administration placed me in a SPED math classroom, even though I came to them with a B.A. in English, M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and several years teaching in college English classrooms.

From what I gathered, they were just doing their best to shove corks into the leaking holes of the ship; the high school had hemorrhaged a good deal of faculty in the last three years, none of which is the fault of the campus’ current (and awesome) principal.

So at least, in the beginning, this is a story of misunderstandings and doing-your-bests.

And they needed a SPED math teacher.

😶 A Complicated Relationship with Math

However, I wasn’t informed during the interview that I’d be placed in a math class; rather, because the interview focused on my experience teaching English, I thought they’d likewise assign me that subject. I even made a lighthearted comment about how my math score on the CBEST was by far my highest score, yet to say I would feel uncomfortable teaching would be an understatement.

I was also transparent about being on the autism spectrum during the interview.

The first time I heard I was teaching math, I was talking to a coworker at a required weekend training. (The recruitment program that helped me get my emergency teaching credential, Transition 2 Teaching, required us to attend Saturday trainings once a month; that was a real juggle, since I also visit my family and friends in Orange County every 4-7 weeks; and though the trainings were unpaid, they had lots of useful information I could apply to both K-12 and college classrooms; so I was grateful for the opportunity, but I also think it may have been too much additional stress to my schedule, especially after I started teaching at a high school and two college campuses simultaneously.)

I didn’t confirmed I was teaching math until long after the “you’re hired phone call,” and shortly after that foreboding training—when I stepped onto the campus to teach for the first time—they assigned a coworker (rather than manager) to oversee my use of V-Math (booklets, not technology) in the classroom.

And I couldn’t do it.

You see, I have arithmophobia.

Or do I?

😭 The Panic Attacks

For the first two months of teaching, I was experiencing anywhere from 3-10 anxiety attacks per work week, although I didn’t start keeping track of the triggers, lengths, and aftermaths (pun intended) until a month in, when I realized I would not receive support without “banging my head into a wall” several times.

Here are some of the notes I wrote down:

Inevitably I was diagnosed with an anxiety condition related to the calculation of numbers. I needed this diagnosis, since McLane High School required medical documentation for the issue, and “I have autism and a fear of all these numbers” wasn’t enough on its own merit. Since I’d been seeing a psychiatrist and/or therapist weekly during the peak of the events, I brought a note in.

Then I was reassigned to teach English.

But not until I had to spend another several weeks locked in a small room, no larger than your typical 2-bedroom apartment bathroom, with a coworker who—although her heart is made of gold—speaks very, very loudly, and sometimes extremely harshly.

This was the nail in my coffin. Social anxiety began devouring the pieces of me that remained after the math trauma. By the time I walked into the English classrooms I’d fought hard to teach, I was already a broken, jumbled, sad mess, with no time available for self-care. I slept, stressed, taught, ate. Slept, stressed, taught, ate.

My graduate school ulcers returned.

I started moaning and rocking to sleep, like I used to do as a teenager.

Sometimes, while I was driving to work, I’d look at a brick wall or an abandoned building—something I knew I could use, in conjunction with my car, to end my life without hurting anyone else—and of course, I let my therapist know I’ve suffered from lifelong passive suicidal thoughts, that they’re coming back again, that I’ve always thought they’ve been my trigger for extreme self-care, but I was open to his interpretations, as long as we could sort this issue out. Deep down, I’ve always sincerely appreciated the nuisances and different angles endlessly provided by life.

I’d inevitably be placed on stress leave because of the social phobia, the pressures of my regional instructional manager, and case management; but I wonder sometimes, if I hadn’t spent two months establishing an environment of fear—if I hadn’t eaten lunches under my desk; buffered coworkers who questioned my autism; and if I had been given time to heal from the obvious damage the misunderstandings had caused me—could I have thrived as an English SPED teacher?

Could I have helped children with autism?

I hope this blog helps instead. I’d like to help somehow.

😱 So is it Arithmophobia…

🤯 Or it Something Else…?

My curiosity about “what happened?” is what led me to explore numbers further on my own time. On stress leave, I took to the activities I thought I’d needed all along, but never had the time for:

I have other therapy plans set in place too, but all of this costs time.

For now, I think it’s safe to say it isn’t arithmophobia…

But it’s something.

Still feels like fear.

🤓 Today’s Autism Video

🤔 3 Takeaways

  • I want an abacus (and I’ve always wanted a damn abacus) more than you’ll ever know. I even want to pronounce it the same way he does @1:33.
  • I love tree bark. I love trees. I love how @0:50, they get cozy with the trees.
  • stream of thought writing while I’m watching the video: I want to use the yellow dots to count 2, 4, 6, 8… the green to count 3, 6, 9, 12… but I don’t like that he’s counting with the blue beads 1, 2, 3, 4, he should use the red beads instead for—AHHH HE’S DOING IT—okay, I’m thinking my abacus shouldn’t be colored. Or maybe I should just make one with the colors I like. I need materials to build an abacus.
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numbers writing


Kourtnie View All →

Kourtnie has an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno and a BA in English from CSU Fullerton. When she isn't writing or making art, she's moonlighting as a professor at community colleges. Read her writing at or

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