Monday, October 18, 2010

Old-School views

One thing that I’ve noticed in some schools is how coveted the teaching of the higher streams of maths is. It is a special post, reserved for the most experienced teachers; the ones who have worked hard and earned this particular group of young geniuses.
The rookies are the ones who get the junior students and the lower streams of senior maths. They get to struggle with teaching the kids who struggle at maths, and as such “earn their stripes”, hoping to one day prove that they, too, are worthy of teaching "the cream of the crop".
There are some problems with this:
  1. New teachers are more likely to be competent mathematicians (fresh out of a maths degree; high-level calculus flowing through their synapses)
  2. New teachers are less likely to be as competent teachers as their more experienced counterparts
  3. The more capable students are less likely to need a competent teacher (they tend to grasp things quickly), but more more likely to need a competent mathematician (someone who can explore deeper concepts and extend their knowledge)
  4. The lower streams will be more likely to need a competent teacher (someone who can interest them and explain things in a variety of ways; someone who can be creative in their methods when teaching the basics) rather than a teacher who can perform partial derivation and multivariable calculus
Having taught a lower stream as a first-year-out graduate teacher and having taught high-level mathematics as a student teacher, I think that schools have that ethic backwards. New teachers, who are already having to deal with the new world of a full-time job plus planning and marking, are then also given the classes which have behavioural problems. This raises stress levels by an order of magnitude.
On the other hand, getting through to the struggling students and having a rapport with them; getting them on-side and having them interested and happy to have you; all this is unbelievably rewarding. It’s just that not many inexperienced teachers are good enough at classroom management to be able to develop this.
Teaching the higher streams should not be seen as the “reward” for competent teaching, as competent teaching isn't necessarily a requirement for these self-motivated groups who would do well if you had a brick with a smilie face drawn on it instructing the class. 
Try improving the motivation of a child who has no academic support at home and whose parents are to busy working to afford food to help with homework, or teaching the kid who's in year 8 and only had a couple of years' worth of eductation in a language school, thus lacking all the basics the rest of your class would have. Or managing a group of kids who all hate each other and are a bunch of little Entitlement Bitches who think they're smarter than they actually are, or that they're so smart they don't need to do the work. Now that requires competent teaching and good classroom management. Particularly if half your class is made up of children like this.

Sticking a new teacher into a group like one of these, on their own with 25 difficult kids and without adequate support or regular check-ins by teachers in authority is a baptism of fire and you are just asking for trouble.

There needs to be more balance and they need to be eased into it, because teaching rounds and university are just not adequate preparation.


  1. I really like your teaching posts. I think you should do more of these. Most people have had teachers, but never really think much about what goes into making a good teacher of good school policy.

  2. Don't take this the wrong way cos as a junior coach I'm passionate about how to deal with young ones and provide them with the best experience, but you downplay the importance of competent teachers at the higher levels and place too much assumption that all students doing maths into higher levels are as good at it as you.

    When I was doing General A the teacher was an extremely competent mathematician but a completely useless teacher. It doesn't matter how motivated I was, I didn't understand what the hell she was on about. My friends could explain in 5 minutes what she couldn't explain in 30.

    I also wonder how you'd go with the stress of teaching students whose exam results are so important.

    I agree that the preparation and support for next teachers lacks (because I hear it from more than just you) but I don't believe that it's as clear cut as you are making it out to be.

  3. Rougie, the key theme here is classroom management. I don't dispute that a teacher needs to be able to get concepts across, but this is much easier to do when your class isn't constantly being disrupted.

    Having taught yr10 students whose exam results determined which maths subject they wanted to get into, I have experienced this. Again, it is much easier with a group where the students actually want to learn, ask relevant questions and don't call out inanities or waste time by running around the place and distracting others.

    It's very hard to explain things properly at the board (no matter how good you are at it) if you keep having to stop because you've got kids throwing things at each other, punching each other or screaming across the room at each other. It disrupts the flow of the lesson, distracts you, and means you don't really have a hope of doing it thoroughly and properly.

    These kids also make it harder to help students individually as you circulate the room, because you still have to keep them from destroying the entire place.

    An experienced teacher with strong classroom management skills who's had time to develop some authority and is already known to the students is far more likely to be able to control this kind of situation and get some real teaching done than a first-year-out grad who is still learning how the school runs, what support is available, and whom the kids have never met and therefore have no reason to respect.