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.