How maths teachers can make a difference – view from Susan Okereke

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Creating safe spaces, triggering engagement, and challenging anti-maths mindsets.

In the last 20 years or so there has been a positive change in how educators deliver maths, with a lot more talk around the psychology of learning, as well as thinking about how maths is used. Today many schools are thinking more deeply about what maths education is, plus the power it gives to students and our society. 

As a country, we are losing money because people aren’t numerate. Our economy is not doing well, and a lack of confidence in maths makes it even more difficult to look after homes and finances.

In the UK, we also have an issue with regard to the amount of people who are in the STEM industry (science, technology, engineering and maths). We need more people to be qualifying with maths A levels and degrees to fill the gaps in the industry, which will help our society improve. 

I believe maths teachers have a very powerful role to play.

Maths teachers as top influencers

I’m so passionate about how important teachers can be to students, full stop – they’re the top influencers on students after parents and guardians. A whole school’s worth of educators with the same mindset can positively or negatively impact the students they teach.

One thing that maths teachers need to acknowledge for themselves, however, is the landscape we’re living in now. The fact that, actually, it is difficult. This is a challenging time, it’s a challenging space, there aren’t enough maths teachers in our country. 

We are also fighting some really difficult messaging that maths teachers need to acknowledge and counteract – like the many negative portrayals of maths in the media, and the pervasive messaging from some parents and guardians who tell their children ‘It’s OK, I can’t do maths’; messaging that gives learners the green light to say ‘I don’t need to be able to do maths either.’ 

Obviously counteracting this involves planning good lessons, thinking about progression, scaffolding, pedagogy, all that stuff. But it’s also about cultivating an environment that is welcoming, safe and engaging – and that’s about the feel of the teaching space.

Maths teachers as safe-space-makers

Being welcoming is really important for whatever you’re teaching. 

For a maths teacher – for any teacher – your classroom is your area, your realm, your kingdom. Your job is to invite and welcome students into that kingdom and make it as positive there as possible, as well as being sure that it’s a nice space you can control. 

Safety in the maths classroom is super important. Teachers need to help students acknowledge and understand that they are going to be challenged by maths. They are going to make mistakes, they are going to find things difficult, and that is fine. It’s also necessary. 

But students should feel like it’s OK for them to do that, which means teachers need to create an environment in which learners are connected with each other, where there’s an overall sense of respect. And a sense of challenge.

Maths teachers as triggers for engagement

Another massive aspect for maths teachers to consider is engagement. When anyone starts to learn something, this is the first thing they need. That means students need to be turned on to the learning content; to be thinking, ‘This is something I want to listen to, I want to engage with, I want to try.’

When we’re triggered to want to do something, we develop an approach response. Our body and mind start waking up. Only then can learning take place. On the flip side, if learning is about to happen and the learner is scared, anxious, bored, or simply doesn’t want to do it, this creates an avoidance response. Then students just shut down. If teachers see an avoidance response is happening, this needs to be challenged, otherwise no learning can occur.

As teachers we need to prime our students for learning in maths. Otherwise those who are showing anxious or destructive behaviours won’t be able to engage. Priming students might involve having a little word with them in class, or after class, to find out what the issues are and what would make it better. The key is to engage with the emotions of that student; acknowledging them and helping where you can. 

I know from my own experience that it can be difficult to do this when you have 32 students in classroom! Still, it’s worth knowing, because taking time to do this could reveal a need for different interventions for certain learners.

Maths teachers as learning champions

How else do we get students turned on to maths learning? Rewards are great for this – and I’m not talking sweets or prizes, necessarily. A reward could be a bit of praise, a gold star, the chance for a learner to sit next to one of their friends, or to play a game at the end of the lesson.

We also need to be champions to our students, and to check ourselves with regards to how we’re thinking about each learner. If a teacher has a predisposed belief about a student, thinking they can’t do something or are not ‘good at maths’, for instance, the student probably won’t improve in the subject. They are taking cues off their teacher. Tackling this is about challenging our biases. It’s thinking about how we approach our lessons. 

In the best maths classroom environments, students will know that it’s OK to fail. That it’s great to support their friends and classmates. And that teachers won’t let them do nothing, or let them give up. Instead we will push them because we believe in them, and we believe they can do better. Students in maths are always going to find things hard, and that is fine and important. But every student needs to be able to try; to feel the power of numeracy for themselves, and gain the confidence to use maths in their lessons, their lives and their world.

Pearson’s Power of Maths campaign works to ensure that everyone can engage with maths and what it can do. Whether it's tackling issues facing maths education or promoting maths positivity, we're focused on working alongside leading thinkers and organisations to help build a number-confident nation. 

Discover Pearson’s range of qualifications and resources, creating pathways for all students to succeed in maths.

Join the Power of Maths community here.

About the author 

Susan Okereke is a maths teacher and communicator, who passionately believes that numeracy is an essential basic skill (like reading and writing) that everyone should be confident at. She challenges negative views of maths by creating and delivering maths content in a way that is accessible, memorable and confidence building.

While teaching maths in a London secondary school, she also facilitates professional development for teachers for the London South East Plus Maths Hubs, she co-hosts the Maths Appeal Podcast with Bobby Seagull, writes the website and regularly presents at various maths events and projects for students, teachers and the general public. Susan is on a mission to show that maths is everywhere and for everyone!

Follow her work on Instagram and Twitter @DoTheMathsThing

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