Part 2: How I went from being scared of maths to teaching it (and how I stupidly thought that becoming a secondary English teacher would ensure I’d never have to teach maths again!)

This post continues the story from my last post about my struggles with maths as a child, into adulthood, and even as a primary school teacher expected to teach it.

Whilst teaching at primary, I started noticing that we teachers make a lot of assumptions about what children should already understand by the time they reach a certain stage. Surely a child who can recite their tables up to 12 x 12 perfectly will have a good understanding of multiplication – won’t they?

Not necessarily, it seems. It’s possible to learn something by rote without having a real understanding of what it means, as I discovered with a small group of year 6 girls who couldn’t seem to grasp concepts such as division and fractions.

I took them right back to basics and gave them counters to put into ‘arrays’.

What does 3 x 4 actually look like? And how can that image help with the understanding of division?

It was like seeing a lightbulb come on when we did this. Despite being able to recite multiplication facts, these children hadn’t realised how this linked to other aspects of maths – and this was what was holding them back.

It was this revelation that made me reflect on my own struggles with maths. I’d diligently learned my tables at school. (Those were the days when teachers could give you a clout for not doing so, and I was more wussy than lazy). Still, that didn’t prevent my head from being the target for the flying board rubber: I was unable to relate that tables’ knowledge to division and, later on, to fractions.

You see, I’d learned how to do something without understanding how it worked.

Same with long multiplication and long division at secondary school: I knew the procedures to follow, but didn’t understand why they worked; this meant that I couldn’t recognise my error whenever I arrived at a totally outrageous answer – which happened a lot.

Many of the methods children learn in primary school seem long-winded to parents who remember the quicker methods they were taught. But often these modern methods help children to understand how numbers work. (And those modern methods help quite a few non-maths-specialist primary teachers as well – myself included!)

One telling indictment on the state of maths teaching in our schools was that, during my second year of teaching, I was given the job of leading maths for the whole school. Yes, you read that correctly: someone who was scared of maths – and was often only one step ahead of the kids, having sat up the whole night before a lesson to learn how to teach it – was responsible for implementing maths procedures within the school and for training other members of staff in those procedures.

The pressure almost finished off my teaching career.

Teaching English had always been my real passion, so eventually I left primary teaching and became an English teacher at a secondary school. I believed that I’d never need to look at another maths problem for the rest of my teaching career. English teachers don’t need to teach maths …

That belief was quashed shortly after I was made form tutor for a class of Year 11s.

The year leading to GCSEs is horrendous – for pupils and for teachers. Despite being an English teacher, I found myself becoming a sounding board for a group of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds in my form for whom maths was a complete mystery – just as it had been for me at that age. Much of what they said was familiar: ‘I don’t get how/ why that works’; ‘I can’t remember that method because it doesn’t make sense’; ‘I feel stupid having to ask the same thing over and over again’; ‘My maths teacher has given up on me because I’m never going to get a C’. ‘I’ll never understand maths …’

Before I’d really had time to think about it, I had a group of pupils from my form meeting me after school a couple of times a week whilst we went through some of those basics I’d gone through with my primary pupils. We used pens, sweets, bars of chocolate, crisps (the caretaker wasn’t happy about that one) – anything we could count or use to represent something that could be shared/ cut into fractions/ put into ratios …

Soon we’d moved onto stuff I really didn’t want to think about, and I admitted to my students that I wasn’t teaching; I was learning this along with them. And the pressure on me increased as pupils from other forms had began turning up to these sessions.

We used weighing scales to show how algebraic equations work. We nicked Blu-Tac from corridor displays to make balls that we could then investigate to understand how to calculate the surface area of a sphere. We pilfered grapes, strawberries and tomatoes from the staffroom fridge to demonstrate conditional probability. And I completely exposed my maths-dunciness the first time we tried to recognise quadratic graphs (but we all benefitted from my dreadful mistakes – and had a good laugh along the way. Well, they did!)

That year was a huge learning curve for me, as well as for those young people who’d worked really hard, and who’d helped me more than I ever admitted to them at the time.

By the time I left classroom teaching in 2012 (thanks, Gove!) I’d learned enough about maths to know that I could have done my GCSE again and performed extraordinarily well.

Maybe one day I’ll do just that.

How I went from being scared of maths to teaching it (Part 1)

It’s the summer of 1980. A sixteen-year-old is staring at her maths CSE exam paper (she isn’t good enough to do the O level) feeling sick and wondering how the hell to add two fractions with different denominators.

This paper is worse than she’d ever imagined; she knows the best she can hope for is a grade 3. (She got a grade 4 in the end – that’s on a par with a GCSE grade F.)

That sixteen-year-old was me.

Sweating and sniffling in that sticky, stuffy exam hall, I was aware that this moment was the culmination of eleven years of struggling to understand even the most basic concepts of maths. I was devastated that I was doing so badly, yet relieved that I would never, ever in the future have to sit through another maths lesson …

Fast forward to the summer of 1995, and I’m a 32-year-old mother-of-two sitting in a different exam hall doing my maths GCSE. I need a grade C so I can do my chosen course at university.

It’s been a tough year. Both my children are pre-school; I’ve had no social life or relaxation time as every spare moment has been spent grappling with those same gremlins that had plagued me during my childhood. My husband has been spending his evenings attempting to get through my thick head why equals 9 and Y equals 5, and not doing a very good job of hiding his frustration and incredulity at my inability to retain the formulas.

I got my C and did my degree, graduating in 2001. I then applied for a place on a teacher training course, whilst working in a voluntary capacity at my children’s school.

Even with a maths GCSE under my belt, I watched teachers explain to eight- and -nine-year-old children concepts that were a revelation to me. I hadn’t realised how easy it was to divide 37 by 10 or 100. I hadn’t thought about how division is the inverse of multiplication, and that using counters to show three multiplied by four could also be used to show twelve divided by three. I hadn’t realised that fractions are division (one half – written as ½ – literally translates as one divided by two).

I was beginning to understand so many maths concepts that I didn’t remember being taught as a child – knowledge of which had been assumed on my GCSE course.

Once I started my teacher training, the pace picked up – especially when I was assigned a year six class where some of the kids were already at GCSE Foundation standard. I remember vividly a lesson I had to teach on ratio and proportion. I sat up for the whole of the previous night with tubes of Smarties, arranging them into different ratios of colours: ‘there are four red Smarties for every three green ones; how many red Smarties will there be if there are twelve green?’ ‘There are 28 Smarties; two in every seven are brown – how many brown Smarties are there?’ (Kathy eats twenty orange Smarties every time she cries; how much weight will she put on by the end of the night?)

Despite my new understanding of some of the basics (thanks to Julie Gawthorpe of Bar Hill School!) I still didn’t enjoy maths: indeed, it was giving me more sleepless nights than it had when I was at school.

You may be wondering at this point how I ever began teaching maths – not just to primary children, but to GCSE pupils and adults as well.

It’s nothing short of a miracle, to be honest, but you’ll have to wait for the next instalment.