In last week’s blog post, I mentioned how I use a metaphor of a bench presser and a spotter to explain why I want to be the “least helpful teacher possible.” When I talk to students, however, I use a slightly different metaphor about personal trainers.

Students will sometimes become frustrated if they think that you are not helping them as much as they want you to. Specifically, instead of telling them what to do, you might ask them questions in an effort to have them make the connections themselves. This may lead them to question your motives (such as thinking you don’t understand the content or that you don’t care) and lose faith that you are looking out for their best interests.

To combat this, I will explain to them that like a personal trainer at a gym, I am their personal trainer for mathematics. A personal trainer is not there to do the work for you. A personal trainer is there to push you farther than you think you can go or want to go. When you are exhausted and your personal trainer has you run one more lap, you probably won’t like him or her. But, you always realize that your personal trainer is focused on getting you stronger and fitter.

Accordingly, during math class students likely won’t think I’m as helpful as they’d like me to be. They might think that I should be telling them what to do more instead of asking them questions. That’s not my goal though. I want them to be strong mathematicians and I am going to push them farther than they may want to go so that they reach that goal.

In my experiences it takes about 15 seconds to share this metaphor with students. It resonates with them and helps them understand why I aim to be “least helpful.” I truly care about them and want them to become stronger mathematicians. They buy into my values and I have much less resistance when I ask them questions so that they can make discoveries on their own.

If you’ve got another way to get students to persevere, I’d love to read about it. Please share it in the comments below.


  1. Thank you for this. Working with high school math teachers, I hear this lament often…”If I don’t tell them, then the students say I’m not teaching!” So I rationalize the process with them, but never have found quite the right example…this. This might just be what they need. I’ll let you know.

    • Best compliment I ever received from a student, “Man, you don’t know anything, we always have to explain it to you!” He may not have known it was a compliment but I was glad to hear that my students were discovering for themselves and not dependent on me explaining it to them.

  2. I’m curious at what age group this will work? I teach a range of middle schoolers. I’m sure it would work with my 7th and 8th graders, but not sure about the 5th and 6th graders. Anyone with experience using this with the younger kids?

    • I’ve used it with elementary students without problems. The idea of a personal coach is not hard to imagine for students who often have experience with youth sports.

  3. For younger students who don’t have much experience or understanding of a personal trainer, try using athletic coach or piano teacher, etc. They will get that analogy.

  4. I have always like the “personal trainer” analogy. I just recently heard about the “Zone of Optimal Confusion” (Google it). This is not something that I would necessarily try to explain to elementary school students, but secondary students, parents, and teachers might like it, as many have heard about the “Zone of Proximal Development”. According to a blog post on Thinking Mathematically, “the act of being confused, working through this confusion, then consolidating the learning effectively is how lasting learning happens!” (see )

    • Thanks Dave. I hadn’t ever heard of that but it does seem very intuitive and fits in well with this metaphor. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

  5. Training wheels on a bicycle. As a parent, when I took the training wheels off, my son was scared he was going to get hurt. I told him that may fall and skin his knee, but he had to try first. He did fall but got right back on and got it on the next try. I also did not have him on a steep hill, but on a flat road. I think as teachers, we need to make sure that we are not giving problems that are overwhelming to students.

  6. During partner or independent practice, I often will have students optionally track as I model (less questioning strategies and more deliberate than my lesson) 1-2 more problems post lesson, and if not…they can continue on and check their work when I finish. I am surprised by how accurately students make the decision to opt out or not depending on current level of understanding. When I first tried this, I expected it to fall flat but was pleasantly surprised. This seems very related to your overarching idea here.

    • Thanks Jack. Anything we can do to help meet students where they’re at and with their needs is worth considering.

  7. I had a professor in college that spent the entire first day talking about all the ways to study a bicycle. He knew how to put one together from scratch. He knew the history of the development of the bicycle. He knew all the different types of bicycles and how they differ. He knew all the physics, aerodynamics and other sciences that model bicycles and how they work. You get the picture. Then he said he didn’t know how to ride a bike because he’d never been on a bike. His point was you don’t learn by observing. You learn by doing. I tell this story to my 6th graders. I add that when you’re learning to ride, you fall and get banged up a bit…a bloody knee, road burn, etc. Learning new concepts in math is that way too. But as you get more practice, riding a bike becomes second nature. You don’t have to think so hard about how to do it. Math concepts are the same. They get the analogy! They understand when I say, “get on the bike!” We have a poster in our room of a man on a bike and I put Dr. Neuberger’s face (with permission) on it. I just point.

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