Maths and Primary Teachers Don’t Always Go Together

A school principal once said something to me which really stuck.  He said that if you look at a primary teacher’s academic background, you see a clear trend.  Most teachers come from a humanities background.  They studied Arts, Literature, Politics, History etc.  He said, only rarely do you find a primary school teacher with a maths background.  The unfortunate truth of the matter, he concluded, is that many primary school teachers are uncomfortable with teaching maths.  Many have limited skills and are simply not adept at effectively explaining maths concepts to their students.

I think there is a lot in what he said.  Whilst spending a year as a substitute teacher, I witnessed many schools and observed many teachers.  It is very rare to find a primary teacher that doesn’t possess an interest in literature and social studies.  It isn’t rare however, to find a teacher who groans at the prospect of teaching fractions or who becomes impatient when a student doesn’t seem to be taking in the method for solving an equation.

Early last year an article was printed in The Australian about the deficiencies of Australia’s education system to deliver acceptable maths outcomes. Even though it was written about Australia, I think it may well apply to many other countries as well.

A groundbreaking review of the mathematics and statistics disciplines at school and university by the Go8 found “the state of the mathematical sciences and related quantitative disciplines in Australia has deteriorated to a dangerous level, and continues to deteriorate.”

The review was compiled by a committee of the nation’s senior mathematicians headed by former University of Sydney vice-chancellor Gavin Brown.

It found that in 2003 the percentage of Australian students graduating with a major in mathematics or statistics was 0.4 per cent, compared with an OECD average of 1 per cent.

Between 2001-2007 the number of mathematics major enrolments in Australian universities fell by approximately 15 per cent.

I also came from a humanities background.  Before completing my degree in teaching, I studies Arts, majoring in English Literature and History.  I, like other teachers was terrible at maths during school.  Our school used to give high pressured maths tests all throughout the year.  I studied for them long and hard, yet managed to fail just about every single one of them.  One day I was so distraught at not being able to work out the answers, I secretly threw my test in the rubbish bin.  A week later my teacher approached me apologetically to tell me she somehow misplaced my test.

The interesting part of it was I actually liked maths.  Whilst it never came easy to me and was taught in a pressurised and negative way, I still managed to enjoy the subject.  In Year 12, I decided I wanted to do maths as one of my final year subjects.  The teacher, Principal and Vice-Principal thought I was crazy and tried to talk me out of it.  They were worried that my inevitably poor results on the three major assessment tasks would drag the class’ score down and tried to persuade me to take up economics instead.  I stubbornly refused.

As it turns out, I did quite well in the end, including earning an A on one of the assessments.  The same Maths teacher that didn’t want me in her class later told me I was her favourite student.  Not because I was the best behaved or the smartest, but because I was determined.  She was impressed that I chose to fight my maths demons rather than take the better grades on offer from doing economics.

Now as a maths teacher (I teach all general subjects), I can relate to the student that doesn’t get it.  I enjoy teaching maths in a style that I would have profited from as a child.  The creative scope for teaching elementary maths is almost limitless.  I like to set up maths role-plays in my class.  In teaching place value I set up a situation where the students are spies trying to break codes in order to thwart an evil plan.  For measurement I get the students to build towers and design tracksuits for Australia’s National sporting teams.

It’s always going to be hard for primary teachers to excel in teaching something they may have never excelled at when they were students.  But that can be a blessing in disguise.  Sometimes a rustiness in the subject helps you relate to the struggles of some of your students and encourages you to be more creative in the way you teach.

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6 Responses to “Maths and Primary Teachers Don’t Always Go Together”

  1. Margaret Reyes Dempsey Says:

    This is a timely post as we were just discussing this topic at my house last night. When I was in elementary school in the 70s, they introduced “new math.” Parents had no idea what was going on because they were taught different methods to solve problems. Since we had to show our work, we couldn’t use our parents’ methods. Some of the teachers were equally clueless. Otherwise wonderful teachers would fall apart when they got to the math portion of their lesson. Somehow I managed to make it through and remained an A student in math…until Calculus came along. Blah! 🙂

    I’d love to read a post about some of the ways you approach math in the classroom.

  2. Math in our Elementary Schools | Educationally Minded Says:

    […] in our Elementary Schools I read Sharing a Love of Teaching today by Michael G. It made me step back and think about math education in the elementary […]

  3. rebecca @ altared spaces Says:

    At our school we have a program called Robotics, began by Dean Kamen. This is an extra-curricular, but also takes a class period too. It utilizes people in the field of science and math as mentors to our kids. We have people teaching Computer Aided Design, engineering, robotic design etc and all the math and science that applies. This seems to get kids excited and the “teachers” only need to do what they are naturally good at: facilitation.

    found you today at Magpie’s shiny things. Wonderful read!

  4. People and MATHEMATICS – – – – A love or hate relationship | Educationally Minded Says:

    […] this week I read Maths and Primary Teachers Don’t Always Go Together by Michael G. It made me think back to when I was teaching elementary school and conversations that […]

  5. Santo Says:

    A wonderful story. Our own difficulties with learning certainly make us better teachers, as we can more easily put ourselves in our pupils’ shoes.

    There is a school of thought that even primary school maths should be taught by specialist teachers, and I have some sympathy with this. They do this in China, and have daily professional development in a cooperative way in each school. For example, see Liping Ma’s wonderful book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Knowing-Teaching-Elementary-Mathematics-Understanding/dp/0805829091

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