Behind the Mathematician: Ed Southall

Behind the Mathematician is a series designed to see what the best maths teachers do, why they do it, how they got there, and hopefully along the way help inspire the rest of us to move to the next level.

The third in this series is brought to you by Ed Southall, aka @edsouthall and the brains behind Solve My Maths, a sublime set of mathematics problems, teaching ideas and general thoughts and pointers on all things mathematical. So let’s find out more about Ed…

What is your name/alias?

Ed Southall

What is your role?

Maths teacher trainer / maths teacher

How would you describe your teaching style?

A bit of everything. I include a lot of creative opportunities for students, and investigations (although I don’t put investigations on a pedestal by any means), but there’s a whole bunch of embedding too.

What made you become involved in Maths education?

It found me rather than me finding it. I started teaching ICT and slowly, through more appealing job opportunities, went into maths. I’m not the ‘born to do it’ type either. I started in education as a mercenary. I was offered a lot of monetary incentives (including student loan repayment!). I learnt to love it pretty quickly though.

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

My main role is pretty broad, and it’s new to both the school and University I work for. It feels like it’s going to go in a hundred different directions. I’m involved with our local maths hub and various other teacher-training programs beyond the PGCE. I’m also about to undertake a doctorate around the subject of maths in education.

What do you enjoy about your career?

I really dislike the linearity and predictability of a ‘typical’ teaching career. I’ve found that your career is what you make it. Opportunities come along all the time, you just have to notice them and make sure you have plenty to sell yourself with. You have nothing to lose when applying for a job. I’ve worked abroad and am now working for a University. There are all sorts of paths you can take. The one thing I won’t ever do is stand still. If it all starts feeling too familiar and predictable then it’s time for me to move on. What’s great about teaching is that it’s highly unlikely to ever be those things.

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

There are an enormous amount of challenges for teachers in general, but maths teachers specifically? Apart from the obvious pressures in (some) schools to deliver often unrealistic results in a very short time span, I’d say the culture of maths as a subject is a really difficult barrier to overcome. I’m not sure I have even begun to chip away at it. I have conversations with TA’s, teachers, senior leaders and parents about how their attitudes towards maths affect students. Parents telling teachers that their child is ‘no good at maths’ in front of the child at parents evening. Teachers happily telling students that they’re rubbish at maths and hated it at school. Senior leaders making quips about the maths department in briefing or on training days… the list goes on. No-one stops to think how detrimental that is. I don’t fell that any of them genuinely intend to degrade mathematics, but neither do I think they’ve really contemplated the negative influence it has on students. My advice is simple: You don’t have to like maths, you don’t have to be good at maths, but by telling that to children, you’re sending the message that it’s acceptable. You’re telling them that it’s normal to be bad at maths, or to hate it – and that that’s OK. Don’t do that.

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

Do it. It is the most amazing subject, and it desperately needs people who love it to teach it. It needs fresh and energetic approaches. You need to get into departments around the country and inspire colleagues to reinvigorate their subject. Students need you now, they need your creativity and they need inspiring. Maths education has slowly been evolving over the last twenty years, but it seems to be accelerating now. It has become socially acceptable (even socially aspirational) to be the smart, nerdy, geeky, able, mathematically minded student. You can create and nurture those people. You can prove to everyone that there’s no such thing as someone who is naturally bad at maths. You can be part of a huge culture shift that’s starting now.

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

The most useful thing I use at the moment is Feedspot. It requires a small subscription fee, but it is essentially a decent RSS feed. I have well over 200 websites and blogs pumped into that thing and it distils it into a manageable daily news page.

I have a whole bunch of teacher tools too. My extensive bookmark folder of resources and online tools is open for the world to see here.

I also invested in creating my own ‘text books’ out of resources and activities I’ve curated or created over the years. That helps massively with planning lessons. I don’t use traditional textbooks. I hate them.

 What is the best advice you’ve been given?

Work smart. Be organised. Archive. Network.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I write crazy hard maths puzzles for students and departments. I also try to post the most useful and interesting maths stuff I come across. All of it is here http://solvemymaths.com

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About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
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