I'm glad I'm teaching maths

Daniel Hamilton talks about the pros and cons of teaching maths.

Daniel Hamilton, Maths Teacher, Glasgow City Council

When people find out I'm a teacher, they always ask me what subject I teach. Sometimes I facetiously say, "First of all, I'm a teacher of children." This normally gets a wry smile; then they ask me again what subject I teach. When I tell them it's maths, the normal reaction is to tell me about their own school experience. For the ones who didn't like maths this can go on for quite a long time, and turn into a sort of apologetic confessional about why they never liked it, or that they didn't “get it”.

You know where you stand

Yes, maths is hard. It's brutal really, in that if you don't know what you're doing, you're very exposed. This, however, makes it easier to teach than other subjects. When everyone is sitting down in the class doing 20 questions there's a mountain of useful feedback for the teacher. If you want to know if someone understands about negative numbers, you can ask them to do five take away six and see what they say. There's no bluffing your way out of that.

The constant feedback is also useful to the pupils. They know what they can and can't do, because of the ticks and crosses on their page. And, when they do know what they're doing, there's a lot of satisfaction from getting lots of questions right. I've found that everyone enjoys a page covered in red ticks. Even the bad kids, or maybe especially the bad kids.

The marking is less time consuming

Another obvious reason that teaching maths is better than other subjects is because of the marking. There's not much to do, and you can do it quickly. I've heard maths teachers complain when they have to mark a question which involves something like comparing two graphs, as the answer comes in a sentence and there's a judgment call about what counts as a right answer. This must be nothing though compared with marking an essay, where the whole thing is a judgment call. I tend to skim read a lot of things, but wouldn't feel right doing that marking an essay someone had put lots of effort into. It must take hours in the social subjects.

But . . .

Now on to the disadvantages of teaching maths – I've found it can be hard to teach the whole class together, as some people have already “got it” and are bored, while others are still copying down the title. Even though my classes are settled, I've struggled to provide differentiated learning, especially in lower ability classes where there is a bigger spread of abilities. I hope this gets easier with experience.

Also, I've seen great looking PowerPoint lessons from other subjects where at the start they display what the kids will learn that day, and at the end they summarise what has been learned. I think this is fine when you're teaching about something like Aztec shopping, as no one knows anything about that at the start, but I don't think this model applies so easily to maths. For example, you might have some pupils who have met your success criteria before you've even started. And in some lessons you're not trying to learn anything new, just reinforcing what you already know, so you've more chance of remembering it in a month’s time.

In fact, in general, I don't think maths lends itself well to CfE-style lessons. Of course, there's a place for group work and peer assessment and everything else, but there's also a place for working quietly on your own at lots of problems until you've really mastered it. I'd imagine a subject like French fits much better with exciting learning activities, and I'm sure they've been doing them for years anyway long before CfE. So I foresee a conflict ahead when I’m torn between teaching maths the way I want to and the way that the inspectors want me to.

In summary though . . .

I'm very happy that maths is my subject. For me the big advantage is you get to do lots of little questions, which is useful for you and the kids to get lots of feedback and is easy for you to mark. And, of course, you get to learn about negative numbers.

Read Danniel's earlier blog entry:

I wish I had my own classroom