Maths Triage



Should any experienced educator spot any mistakes in my methods please alert me to them.

A latent dream to become an educator has taken great leaps forwards. With great luck I might be accepted onto teacher training course, despite losing many of my application slots (a grand total of 3) to schools that have yet to remove vacancies from the system, and are even slower to reject me after informing me that there is no space. I am also waiting on my previous employer to respond to my reference request should he ever find a free moment in between providing water and medicines to Malians.

In the meanwhile I am tutoring and as yet remain far below any threshold for reporting my earnings. I do wish I could pay tax. I initially advertised to provide free maths and physics tuition up to GCSE. In the meantime I am revising my A-Level and university maths and will tutor these once I am confident enough to devise teaching strategies. I am now charging new tutees, we negotiate but it averages about £10 per hour and I eagerly wait for the time when honestly will allow me to charge £15.

Free tuition is not as popular as one might imagine. I guess free translates to low quality in the mind. I suppose it was true. I tutored for free because I did not feel it was honest to charge before gaining some experience. If the feedback from my students and a random cafe patron listening to my lesson is anything to go by, I have a knack for this. The cafe person said he thought I was great at teaching people with learning difficulties. Strangers are my favourite source for compliments.

The people I tutor struggle with maths. Though they are not necessarily bad at maths. Time and time again I see them fall into a panic, in this panic I try ever-simpler questions, and they respond “I don’t know”. I tell them “You do know. You answered it less than a minute ago.” I tell them to close their eyes and breath to five, to think of breakfast or dinner. At this point I make sure they have really reset. Then I get them to attempt the question again. Very often they handle the simpler parts of the question with ease, gaining one to two steps towards the answer, then it all begins again.

I have tried to avoid sending them into this panic, but maths anxiety is rooted deeply. From what I can tell they stop even comprehending the question, such as what is half of half, and start spouting nonsensical answers. I have to undo years of negativity and confusion.

In the case of one student who is doing his fourth retake in the hope of achieving a C, I have 18 hours over 2 weeks to do this. I cannot imagine what 4 retakes does to a person’s confidence. His “teacher” has told the whole class “You will all fail. You will all be back next year.” This seems like a terrible strategy, to panic the already panicked. He was once 3 marks off a C, he picked up 20 marks but the boundary was raised and he was short 4 marks.

There is no time to teach him from the ground up. What strikes me is he knows the maths but cannot see the solution. I have seen him fly through ratios and panic with scaling. Flawlessly round to decimal places but a full 15 minutes struggling on significant figures. From somewhere, with gentle pushing there is a spark, I see the eyes widen, I hear the “OH!” he gets it. He has broken out of his self-imposed imaginings of difficulty. He realises he knew it. He does the next few question without error, because he did essentially the same question in another form without error. I congratulate him, tell him to remember how clear everything is. He gains confidence in his abilities, but there is no time to celebrate, there is still more confusion to undo. A while later he is back in his panic, and I feel my work was for naught.

With enough of these instances I think he trusts me when I tell him he knows how to do it. I am not being dismissive of his struggle. I do not say it about maths he genuinely does not know. When I tell him he knows how to do it, I am telling him the truth. In one session I only needed to draw him out of spiral of confusion once. In his first encounter with simultaneous equations on the page before us sat something similar to 3y=10-x and 2x=3y+4, I was only halfway through describing a simpler analogue, “If y=3x and 3x=12, y=?”, he blurted out the answer to the analogue and described how to solve the problem on the page, then solved it flawlessly. Next time we attempt he has forgotten it, but no matter, we rebuild it. What he really needs is more practice. though there is only so much time in a lesson.

His teacher had never taught him this, he did not need to know this for the Foundation Paper and it’s top possible mark of C, so why bother. He can’t even get a C so why bother with harder stuff? I read into his stories and I can see how worthless she made him feel. He was trapped, going over the same old maths, having them explained to him in the same old way and never understanding them properly. His learning stagnant, his knowledge limited, and he was blamed, he was “not smart enough”. The evidence before my eyes showed otherwise. To fail to teach him is bad enough, his teachers effectively suppressed what he did know. But then again, I do not know the circumstance, and hours of tutoring is a rare luxury.

This faceless teacher provided a convenient scapegoat, if only to build up his confidence. I know that one day I will tutor a struggling student with a great teacher. In the future if I am to become a teacher I cannot blame my colleagues.

After 12 hours I gave him his second set of Higher Tier past papers. June 2011. It was a hard paper and his spirits were low. I talked him through the mistakes and showed him the easy extra marks. He scored 106/200, and he is unhappy but we look at the grade boundaries. It was a harsh year, B=83 A=119. I am quietly optimistic and want to push for the A but I do not let on. It is hard to tell who is happier, him or his mother. His confidence is lifted. He asked me how confident am I that he will get a B in the exam. They trust me with his hopes, dreams and future. This nebulous concept solidified in one question. “I can’t predict the future, but you got a good B.”

I have to be in Malta next week, the week before his exam, I only have 3 hours left. I have so much left to do, to clean up his presentation, to tweak his notation and to formalise his approach to problems. To crack his problems with probability and reinforce his trigonometry. I need more time and I need less confusion, but I am confident he will do it.


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