Archive for November, 2012

In 1980 when I became a secondary school maths teacher, things were ‘old school’. Blackboard, chalk, no computers, real classroom teaching. I thrived in that environment. As a form tutor I established relationships with kids, some of whom I am still in contact with over 30 years later. As a maths teacher I was allowed to teach develop my own way of teaching. Yes there were text books but I usually taught from the front and then created custom worksheets to back this up, something I still do as a maths tutor. I took exercise books in weekly and marked all homework. And this wasn’t just me – that was how teaching was back then. It was a 70 hour a week job for those of us who cared. More importantly I tried to get across my enthusiasm for maths. Over the years a number of former students have contacted me and told me how much they enjoyed my approach.

I left teaching behind in the early 1990s. On taking the decision earlier this year not to work full-time again, I decided to revisit my roots so to speak. Maths teaching comes as naturally to me as breathing.

The first thing I did was to contact the Department for Education about its return to teaching scheme for qualified teachers. I wanted to visit a few schools to see how technology was being used but after waiting for some weeks for the DoE to contact me, I arranged a visit to JCoSS school in East Barnet. This is a brand-new school that opened a few years ago; I knew various people there through helping them with the design and print for the school’s launch while at Jewish Care.

JCoSS is very impressive and epitomises the best in modern school design. I shadowed one teacher in the maths lab to see how computers were being used and then a second teacher in a standard classroom with a huge computer-controlled whiteboard. Two things hit me: maths teaching really hasn’t changed, only the available tools have; and kids still find the same things difficult.

My experiences with tutoring over the past six months tells me one thing has changed: the general quality of maths teaching. There have always been good and bad teachers, those who chose the profession almost as a calling and those who chose it as a safe, easy ride. But at least they had a degree or equivalent. Not now. Government statistics in 2011 showed that over a quarter of maths teachers in secondary schools do not have a maths degree. It’s actually worse in most other subjects: for instance, around a third of physics teachers do not have a relevant degree.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said: ‘The lack of qualifications held by teachers is alarming and will have consequences. It is little wonder that in comparison with the rest of the developed world, our standards are slipping. It takes more than a good degree to make a good teacher. But sound subject knowledge, gained from a degree, is absolutely key. How can teachers passionately communicate their subject if they do not have a good level of understanding about it?’

This is particularly true where maths is concerned. It requires a high level of understanding to teach it well – and a much higher level when you consider the plethora of questions students ask. Being unable to answer such questions or to find different ways to explain a topic are unacceptable.

I’m finding that many of my students’ teachers only take in exercise books once or twice a term. Homework goes unmarked as do the exercises done during class time. I have students who have done complete exercises without getting a single answer right – and are totally oblivious to the fact. How can this be right? More to the point, how can this be allowed to happen? What are the heads of department doing?

By letting teachers base their entire lessons on text book teaching if they wish, we are allowing a lazy approach. I’d argue that we are actively encouraging it. The fact that some good teachers don’t work this way shows that it can be done – but it takes more effort, time and commitment than many are prepared to give.

Recently, a student of mine was given a test. At the top of the sheet it stated that full working had to be shown. She got 74%, a decent mark but one she was disappointed with. She asked the teacher to show her where she’d lost the marks only to be told to look at it herself and she would see where. The teacher hadn’t put a single tick or cross on the entire paper, just a final mark in a circle. With this scenario, how can a student possibly see what’s wrong? I went through the paper with her. There wasn’t a single mistake and all working had been shown. She should have got 100%. A good example of a poor teacher.

If you’re reading this and you’re a parent with kids in secondary school, do yourself a favour. Have a look at their exercise books. See how many exercises have/haven’t been marked. If you’re unhappy with what you see, make an appointment with the teacher and escalate it up through the head of department and head of year right to the headmaster if you’re not satisfied with the answers. These are our kids. We owe it to them to ensure they get a decent education.

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