Home > #MTBoS, Commentary, Education Policy, Teaching > What are the challenges facing maths teachers?

What are the challenges facing maths teachers?

This post was originally published here on Edustaff on 26th June 2015.

A while ago I received an email asking what I thought were the main challenges facing maths teachers, and it got me thinking.

The challenges fall into two main categories. There’s the problems all teachers face and then there’s the problems that are more specific to maths teachers.

For the wider profession, the main issues revolve around the negative views of teaching and teachers that seem to be all too prevalent in today’s world. I’m not sure where they stem from, but I don’t think they’re helped by the scorn the media throws onto us, especially during the strike action the other year.

These challenges seem exacerbated by the government rhetoric that has seen education secretaries refer to teachers as “enemies of hope”, “dealers in despair” and “enemies of promise”. Breaking these negative stereotypes is also not helped by the military analogies used. Recently the Prime Minister announced he was to “wage war” on coasting schools. I agree that no school should be coasting, but using terms like ‘wage war’ gives the positive change we are aspiring to a very negative spin.

I don’t know how we, as teachers, can alter this. We already work our socks off to ensure that the learners in our care get the best possible education… I guess we just keep up the hard work and hope the negativity drops.

I believe the main maths-specific issues also centre on perceptions. However, the challenges here are down to the perceptions of maths espoused by many people, rather than the perceptions of the teachers themselves.

I’ve heard a Head of English say she never understood algebra and it didn’t do her any harm; I’ve heard teaching assistants say “I’ve never understood maths”; I’ve heard a Deputy Head question year 11s as to why they’d consider choosing a “boring” A-level.

Astonishingly, I’ve even heard a teacher tell a class “I don’t know how to change the score out of 40 into a percentage, ask a maths teacher.”

Students hear this and get instantly turned off. They often hear these views at home from parents who either “couldn’t do” or “didn’t like” maths. I had a year 7 learner the other year who had an in-built learned helplessness on algebra. She used to say “my dad’s the cleverest person I know and he can’t do algebra, how do you expect me to.”

After a lesson on quadratics, I asked her, “How did you find that?”

“It was well easy,” she said, “it’s only algebra I can’t do.” It took all I had to explain it was algebra without laughing.

I think this example suggests that the parents in question were failed by their own maths teachers. I think the best way to combat this is to really make sure this generation love maths and do understand it, avoiding a similar situation in the future.

As for the teachers, we all need to support each other. If teachers of other subjects are struggling with basic maths, we can help with that, and if they can start to realise the damage they do when rubbishing our subject, surely they would stop! I’d never think of slagging off another subject to learners, and I wish everyone felt the same.

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  1. Ronald
    June 29, 2015 at 10:17 am

    I agree and I disagree.

    It’s perhaps part of a teacher’s job to admit: “I genuinely found this hard, you’re not alone”.

    I have parents at the moment who express to their (Key Stage 2) child, “we never fully understood this level of maths at all, but we are delighted that you do and we want to support you”.

    Being generally positive rather than negative is important, as you say, but I also think there is important space for adults, parents and teachers to admit their faults and show children that they are not expected to be perfect.

    • June 29, 2015 at 10:46 am

      Aye, when phrased in a positive way I can see a benefit. My experience is more of negative framing unfortunately.

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