Arithmetic

You’d like me to teach ‘foundation’? What’s that then? Geography, history, RE, creative arts to Year 7? Smooths the transition from primary does it? Righty-o. As long as I can stay one step ahead, shouldn’t be a problem.

A-Level film studies? Ok, I’ll give it a shot. Media Studies while I’m at it? Yeah…why not? It’ll be challenging, but I’m up for it.

Enterprise? Sounds interesting. No idea what it is but let me have a look at the spec and we’ll go from there.

ICT? Yep, I’ll give it a crack. Love computers me. Got one at home and everything.

Employability? Very important, let’s do it.

Work skills? Crucial stuff sign me up.

Maths? Of course I…

WOAH NOW.

Did you say maths? Ha! I thought you said maths.

Oh.

Oooooookay. It’s just that I’m not brilliant at…

No, I understand that it’s Functional Skills but still, do you not think that…

I know there’s a shortage but…

Yes. I do like eating and sleeping somewhere with a roof. Fair enough.

So my career as a maths teacher commenced. Turns out that being under the threat of redundancy does absolute wonders for horizon broadening. I’ve taught all the other subjects above to a greater or lesser degree of success; enjoyed most of them too but maths is different. Maths scares me. Always has. When I was a a kid I used to hate the unforgiving starkness of it. The way it would remorselessly leave you behind if you made one little mistake, like a sadistic drill sergeant chiding you for your clumsiness. I was the Private Pyle of maths. Slow on the uptake, always stumbling.

This fear was not allayed in adulthood as there were moments where maths creeped up behind me, pulled my trousers down and ran off, tittering and pointing. For instance, a promotion in a bar job meant that one of the things I had to do was count up the tills at the end of the night. First time I did it, £2000 went missing. There was mass panic until someone checked my working and sat me down for a chat about carrying during multiplication and whether perhaps I’d like to go back to my previous role as a simple bottle monkey. Or the first time I realised I might have to work out the mean average of marks for GCSE English and had to pop down the corridor and find the nearest maths teacher so I could make sure that what I thought the mean average of something was, was in fact what the rest of the world thought the mean average of something was. Oh how their laughing still rings in my ears.

They’re all dead now.

Anyway, me and maths; we’re not best friends and the prospect of teaching the subject was not a happy one. So I went into my first class with a feeling of trapped desperation. They would know. They’d see the fear in my eyes. They’d know that fear and they’d dine on it like hyenas fighting over the carcass of my professional pride. I went in that class pondering how long it would take them to realise.

Screw you maths, I thought. You’ve got me again.

Did they realise? Did they pounce on my obvious nerve-riddled demeanor screaming ‘CHARLATAN! CHARLATAN! HE KNOWS NOT THE WAY OF THE NUMBERS AND THE SYMBOLS’?

Of course they didn’t. Because they were me.

The same problems, the same worries, the same sweat-induced anxiety at the prospect of long, short or any kind of length of division. They reflected my own fears, and I realised that I had to just get on with it because I was all they had. It didn’t matter the tiniest bit whether I liked the subject or not – no other bugger was going to teach them.

So I did.

And in the teaching, maths and I formed a grudging respect for each other. I started to appreciate the simultaneous simplicity and complexity, the rules that GUARANTEED outcomes, the millions of different applications for the things we were studying. We’ll never be friends, me and maths (too much has gone down) but now, when we pass each other in the corridors we nod at each other and there’s respect there. Maths has also stopped pulling my pants down ever since I took it upon myself to consolidate my own learning surrounding the things that I was teaching. Funny that.

There is the argument that I shouldn’t have been in front of those students in the first place. To be honest, it’s one I tend to agree with. I believe deep subject knowledge is the difference between a facilitator and a teacher and I don’t know about you but I’d rather have someone in front of me that knows and is confident of what they’re on about than somebody who is only two steps in front of the students they teach. But then sometimes that’s a luxury. Educational institutions can be imperfect and it can be left down to the individual to deal with that imperfection in the best way that they can because what’s at stake is too important. So I look forward to the day where I only teach the subject that I’m trained to teach but until then, I’ll do what needs to be done and if that’s knowing what a mean average is and helping them to know what a mean average is, then so be it.

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10 comments

  1. cstimmo

    I taught y7 Maths once. I really struggled when they didn’t get something I thought was blindingly obvious. What do you mean you don’t get a 90′ rotation clockwise around a point? Nope, sorry sir. Hmmm, now what?

    • tstarkey1212

      I’ve had the same thing. Knowing where the student’s are starting from is often something that comes with teaching something familiar and can be lost if you’re picking up random subjects.

    • tstarkey1212

      I certainly think it can help you empathise with the student’s situation, find resources that are explicit etc. However, I’d take a teacher with good content knowledge over one without when all’s said and done. Although it’s necessary to teach subjects you may have struggled in at points in your career, ultimately, I don’t think it’s fair on the students.
      But then again, I’m epic no matter what I’m teaching.
      Really appreciate the comment.

  2. Primary prowess

    If this happens again watch and re watch the NCETM maths videos for primaryhttps://www.ncetm.org.uk/resources/40529 ( sorry not sure how to hyper link when posting)

  3. Jill Berry

    A good illustration of how the best way to learn something is to prepare to teach it, Thomas…..

    I taught Year 7 Latin once, on the basis of my 1974 O level. I think I did OK, considering, and the Year 7s (bless) gave me a card at the end of the year that said ‘To the best Latin teacher…’ How little they knew. I was only ever one step ahead of them, and when they asked me a question, ‘That will come up in a later chapter’ and ‘That hadn’t been invented in Roman times’ became staple responses.

    I survived, but I’m with you here: “Deep subject knowledge is the difference between a facilitator and a teacher and I’d rather have someone in front of me that knows and is confident of what they’re on about than somebody who is only two steps in front of the students they teach.”

  4. richmalpass

    I remember ending up as a P.E. teacher when I moved to the Isle of Wight (English trained) – and by the end of the year I was the Core/Citizenship lead teacher – necessity truly is the mother of invention (and horrific career routes!). Whenever I interview now, I never know whether I should mention it or not, for fear that something similar will come my way again!

    http://lovelanguageloveliterature.com/2014/09/12/fail-friday-this-week-when-teachers-fail/

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