Behind The Mathematician: An Introduction

Being in the company of wonderful Maths teachers on Saturday made me feel slightly inadequate in some respects. I am very much a cheerleader rather than a creator of great Maths teaching practice. So I’ve spent the last 24 hours thinking – what could I actually do? Well rather than arbitrarily try to start making things, I thought I’d make the most of what I do best – promoting good ideas and spreading the word.

Inspired (Copied? Of course not!) by Lifehacker’s How I Work series (which is a worthwhile read in its own right) I’ve decided to launch a ‘Behind The Mathematician’ series, a chance to discover more about the people who are at the forefront of great maths teaching, find out what inspired them and hopefully learn from their careers in order to inspire all of us in the profession to achieve great (or should that be greater) things ourselves.

If you would like to be profiled in this series, then contact me via twitter @workedgechaos or e-mail me, workedgechaos@gmail.com

So, I’ll get things rolling:

What is your role?

I’m Head of Maths at a small comprehensive school in South Yorkshire.

How would you describe your teaching style?

A mix of old-school rigour, constant questioning and plenty of connections to the real world. I love to try new ideas, regularly looking out there on the web for what might make my practice better. I’ll be honest, a lot of what I do in the classroom is inspired or (ahem) copied from what I’ve seen others do.

I feel my contribution to teaching and learning for the people I work with is primarily around understanding the philosophy and psychology of Maths education. I’m a great believer in the importance of positive, respectful relationships between the teacher and his students, and how before anything, that has to be right for learning to take place.

How I plan lessons is very systematic. I find out what the students know. I introduce and explain a new idea. I test the students to see if they understand. I get them to practice it. I get the students to reflect on their learning. Everything else is a combination of showmanship and classroom management. It’s not rock and roll but it’s surprisingly effective – it all goes back to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Any resources that I choose or use fit into this schema. I don’t go for anything too whizz bang – students are here to learn, first and foremost.

What made you become involved in Maths education?

I was always going to be a teacher at some point, I’d decided that from about the age of 14. However the decision to be a Maths teacher took hold when being a STEM mentor for students in Sheffield. The dearth of interest in Mathematics as a subject really hit home, especially when we were, at the time, on the cusp of the IT revolution across all aspects of human life. What chance did students have to succeed in this new age if they couldn’t reason logically, deal with algebra or even know their timestables? More importantly, I felt there was a lack of understanding of the connections between Maths and real-world situations. It’s why I love the work of Dan Meyer.

I actually trained to be a teacher after a year in industry, project managing building overhead power lines. It wasn’t rewarding enough and I made the leap, despite it meaning I was going back to being a student and skint after being on a healthy wage.

Beyond your main role, what other projects/work are you involved in?

Where do I start? I help steer CPD for Heads of Maths in the local authority; I’ve been authoring for an online teaching and learning package; I’m an examiner; I’ve just been invited to be an advocate for one of the ‘big three’ exam boards; oh, and there’s this blog, for which I hope great things will happen (like this series)!

What do you enjoy about your career?

There’s a warm feeling – and I can’t describe it any better than that – I get when I can see actual learning going on. When a lesson just clicks and you see something that students didn’t know register in their minds and they start to use it. I’ve just taught factorising quadratics to a year 9 class who, just a week ago, could barely factorise anything. Now they’re just eating it up.

It’s not all about results, but results day is always a good day – no matter what the outcomes for school are. When the students who you know have worked their backsides off get the grades they deserve – it really does make it all worthwhile.

What do you think are the main challenges that maths teachers face?

The sheer bureaucracy of the job, at any level is a hardship, but you learn to manage it. The increasingly production line orientation of schools, driven by targets and producing ‘outcomes’ and not students.

I think the hardest thing I face is when parents don’t support you, and it happens a surprising amount at all ability and age levels, in any environment. I’ve worked right across the schooling spectrum, from bog-standard comprehensives to high-attaining grammar schools and when a parent doesn’t back you in your efforts, quite frankly getting the student to achieve their potential is a tough job. I understand why some parents don’t like schools – usually because they didn’t do well, or in the past the school might not have done as well in past – but at the same time we’re all here for the benefit of their children.

What advice do you have for people just starting out in Maths education, or who would like to become involved?

If you’re thinking of becoming a teacher: don’t do it for the money and the holidays. The idea that a teacher has 13 weeks of holiday is a myth. It’s 13 weeks of planning, research and a little bit of time to relax. Remember who you’re doing it for. The kids (to paraphrase Robbie and Kylie). If you genuinely want to make a difference to students’ lives – great, sign up. If not, be prepared for the long haul.

If you’re starting out: get organised. Constantly review your timetable, your calendar, have a to-do list and reflect on your lessons every day. Finally remember that lessons are to help students learn something, not to entertain. That last point might be seen as controversial in some circles but I don’t care, it’s true.

What tools/resources do you use to help you in your work?

As a leader/manager:

A pen and paper. I’m trying to get into using the likes of Evernote and Wunderlist but I can’t seem to make it work for me at the moment. I am known for walking around a blue (always blue) A4 hardback notepad. It’s my life. E-mail, also known as my second brain. I make a point of saying to people that if they have a request of me, not to ask me vocally (I’ll forget), but in written form so I can respond properly.

As a teacher:

Where do I begin? I put all of my lessons on SMART Notebook. It gives me structure and makes even the most boring lessons have a hint of interactivity. I write lesson plans out using the 5 Minute lesson plan – JustMaths’ format is ideal. Don Steward’s MEDIAN blog – the man needs a medal, if not an MBE. Resourceaholic – there’s so much out there resource wise a curator was needed, and luckily, Jo’s stepped up.

Ultimately though, I always go back to pen and paper. All the tools in the world don’t make great teachers. You, your head and a bit of thinking does most of the hard work.

 What is the best advice you’ve been given?

In the second placement of my teaching practice I was having a particularly hard time of it. My mentor said “the key to being a successful teacher is being a reflective practitioner”. In other words, always look to improve. I’m not saying throw the baby out of the bath water every time, but keep responding to whatever you’re having to deal with.

In terms of being a maths teacher, a university lecturer explained to me in great detail how ultimately, the best ones inspire confidence in their students. Maths is a subject that often strikes fear in learners; at the start of the lesson one of the best things to make clear that you and your class are going to go through the learning together, and you’re here to support them. It sound cheesy, and you don’t have to say it directly, but I’ve found it does work.

Anything else you’d like to add?

All maths teachers have some sort of eccentricity. Mine is a surprising capacity to remember the most incredibly wide-ranging but ultimately useless facts and knowledge. I can go from talking about the early history of Anglo-Saxon England (Alfred the Great gets all the credit but Athelstan was the first really great king of England) to post-punk bands from Manchester (Joy Division. Always Joy Division) in the blink of an eye.

Oh, and I have a bizarre fascination with maps. I’ve been known to sit and read an A-Z map of Sheffield. Don’t ask.

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About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
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