Behind the Mathematican: Mel Muldowney

Behind the Mathematican continues in its efforts the week to discover what inspires the best Mathematics teachers and practitioners out there.

Each edition so far has been a truly fantastic insight in to these people and what they do – and this week is no exception. A few years ago JustMaths came to the forefront in my mind when I went to a CPD session in Bradford. If just for the resources JustMaths is a boon – but when you look deeper into the care, thought and attention that goes into the website, blog and resources as a whole, it is only testament to the standing of the people behind it.

This week, Behind the Mathematician features Mel Muldowney – one of the three people running JustMaths, and arch-blogger extraordinaire. Let’s find out more about the person behind the project!

What is your name/alias?

Mel Muldowney / @Just_Maths / @ReviseJustMaths / @SchoolScanner

What is your role?

This September I moved to Alcester Academy as Associate Subject Leader with my partner in crime (Seager), having started my teaching career at Trinity High School (Most Improved School Jan 2013) in Redditch 5 years ago eventually becoming 2ic and Whole School One-to-One Coordinator.

How would you describe your teaching style?

One word: Evolving.

Until September I would have said that my teaching style was “risky”; I would always try new ideas out and take the less safe route if given a choice. Don’t get me wrong this doesn’t mean every lesson but I tried to mix it up a little. In terms of a “safe” lesson as I have become more comfortable in my classroom I am happier to teach without loads of worksheets or resources and can focus on what I want them to learn and be able to apply that lesson.  I make no apologies for my style of teaching: sometimes it’s very didactic, sometimes interactive and there are times when it is very “student led”. The one thing I have a fundamental belief about is that that without a “body of knowledge” i.e. teaching them “stuff” students cannot and will never be able to apply the softer skills that a few years ago was bandied around as the aim of education.

With a move to a new school, my teaching for the last 8 weeks has become very formulaic. I have blogged about why this is the case. I just believe that my students need to know that every lesson I will be handing them out a “do now” sheet and whilst I hand out the books and do the register they get on with it. “We” are establishing “our” routines and as a result behaviour is better. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE HOW TOUGH MOVING JOBS IS!!

I know that given time my teaching will get back to where it was in terms of me being much more relaxed and prepared to try new ideas. Right now the pressure (I love pressure!) is on to get results with year 11 and they are rising to the challenge like I’ve not seen before and lower down the school I can already see that there is massive scope for these students and me to have an amazing relationship.

What made you become involved in Maths education?

I have been asked about this by several people, including the Guardian and the National College for Teaching and Learning and my reply has always that I wanted to “make a difference”.

My plan at 21 was to leave Warwick University, return back to Wales and do my PGCE in Design & Technology (we called it woodwork and metalwork in my day!). However, about 6 weeks before the end of my course I met my new boss at my part time job in a pub in Leamington Spa. The rest, they say is history … 5 weeks later I’d organised to rent a flat in town, he moved in and 6 months later we were married … 21 years later we are still together!

All my plans went out of the window as we went into business together. I spent 7 glorious years running a town centre pub … it was brilliant until I lost my mam in a hit-and-run. This was the “trigger” that made me consider whether she ran a corner shop, working 12 hour days to put me through university for me to be a glorified bar-maid (ok so I was more than that and doing very well out of it) and so off I went to find a “corporate” job. I spent the next decade or so working up the ladder from a regional role, to a national role and then having some responsibilities for overseas.

The change into teaching was another “trigger”: one of my team was involved in a fatal car crash, and having to deal with losing Tim made me re-evaluate my priorities and who I was as a person. It basically made me question everything.  In terms of the practicalities of making the decision it happened after a weekend with some friends and their kids. At about 4am we were having a heart-to-heart about “life, the universe … and everything” (You know those conversations!) and I was told that I should consider teaching (these friends never knew my childhood ambition was to be a teacher!) and every single objection I could find was counter-argued by them. Everything just fell into place.

That’s not to say it was an easy decision to make or that the whole process was painless. It has however been the best decision I have ever made (apart from saying “yes” to my husband!) in my life.

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

JustMaths has taken over our lives – there are 3 of us involved: Seager (my HOD), Fize (who does the ICT) and little ‘ol me. It came about as a result of a corridor conversation and yet here we are, about to celebrate our second birthday in November. I genuinely can’t remember what I did with my time before JustMaths.

I blog on our site and I am constantly humbled and amazed at the feedback – when myself and Seager made the decision to move to a new school together I vowed that I would be talking about the highs and lows and even if only one person takes comfort in knowing that they aren’t the only ones feeling the same, then I feel I have done what I set out to do.

I also do a bit of co-presenting with Seager doing Maths workshops (he gets to do more of it though!) for various organisations and we have built up great working relationships with one of the exam boards (not that I’m on bad terms with the others by the way ☺ – I’ve done some freelance stuff for one of them!) and as a result, in the new year we will be delivering some “Getting Ready To Teach” type CPD events.

There are also some other exciting things that I’m finalising details for … as they say: Watch this space!

What do you enjoy about your career?

Being brutally honest I enjoy being in front of students more than the “managing” element of my day-job. The rapport is amazing. Knowing the impact on the lives of these young people I can have is the most rewarding thing you can imagine from a career. I feel it is both and honour and a privilege to be allowed to make that difference to so many students.

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

Oh! Where do I start? In terms of the biggest challenge some would say recruitment and I agree to some extent, but before that we need to consider RETENTION. There is no point recruiting unless we can retain teachers in the profession.

The constant changes in policy from Whitehall mean that education is in a constant state of flux and given the fact that education is high on the political agenda it means that in a democracy this is inevitable. What we cannot allow to continue is for the voice of the foot soldiers (us! The teachers!) to be ignored. We are always looking for those in power to validate their position or knowledge of education by proving they have “been there, seen in and done it” (many of them haven’t by the way!) and breathe a sigh when someone with the right credentials comes along, but so often these members of the teaching elite that have credibility move out of teaching and then unfortunately become separated from what it happening at the coal-face and become “yes” men/women.

Additionally we have new GCSEs, which I’m taking in my stride and am quite excited about. Our challenge in secondary schools lies with the new programmes of study lower down the age groups which haven’t been taught the new KS2 and KS3 topics but are assumed as prior knowledge at KS3 and KS4 respectively … unless we are very skilled and are aware of these there is a danger of a “lost generation” who will have massive gaps.

Interesting and very exciting times are ahead.

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

If you are considering teaching and haven’t yet made the jump: Think carefully, but once you have made the leap of faith you need to give it everything. Most importantly, make sure that you have a supportive family or group of friends (my husband was amazing!).  Do your research, get into a local school because education is constantly changing and your recollection of it as a student will be a very different view as a teacher.

If you are already on the journey make sure that you take the time to enjoy it. Sometimes it is hard to step outside of the chaos but you need to stop, breathe and look around.

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

My natural state is one of disorganisation and I used to have to work really hard at keeping myself organised. I love lists but as a consequence I used to end up with bits of paper everywhere and very early on in my corporate career I learned to carry a book and wrote every conversation, phone call, to-do note and meeting note into it. Since technology has moved on I now use my ipad and wouldn’t be without Idoceo (an electronic version of a teachers planner, but better!) which I use to organise my life.

 What is the best advice you’ve been given?

When it comes to general advice my mam used to say “worry is like a rocking horse … it goes up and down but gets you nowhere”. Easier said than done in reality, but what it does for me is make me take action and do “stuff” that means I am working towards a solution for whatever it is that is worrying me.

In terms of my teaching the best advice was to “wait for silence and then wait some more” … Getting quiet is tough with some groups and it is easy to start talking as soon as you’ve got it, but I found that when I did this some groups felt that it was OK to revert to them talking. What worked for me is to “wait some more” as it asserts your authority as the teacher and provides a definitive break between them talking and me talking.

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About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
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