Renata's prophecies


So Renata is a puzzle. She spent a lot of time in the beginning of the year comparing me unfavourably to her previous teacher, with some justification in that her previous teacher was the highly skilled rector of our school. She also seemed a little slow of understanding, taking more time and explanation to grasp concepts than many other children.

But then the marks came in. Renata gets, these days, tens.

I would love to say it is down to my superior teaching skills, but it is a least partly down to the rigid, high standards she applies to herself and those around her. Once the pressure of judging and dealing with the changeable nature of the world lets up, once she can concentrate on a maths test, she shines.

The prophecies are a problem though, one that I do battle with every time we meet. She will say "I don't understand this. I cannot understand this" and I have to jump in quickly before the letterbox of understanding snaps shut. I have to step up before her prophecy becomes truth.

I try to curve round her certainties, the way I was taught to absorb and redirect an attack in Aikido. "Let's look at the first part. Let's see what we can already write down. Can we do a simpler version of the problem?" Contradicting her would not help (in a head-on-clash we would both lose) but tempting her to try a process, to have an approach with starts up when she does not see the answer directly, might. She is one of those quick-thinking children that have not failed often enough to be comfortable with it. My job is to get her comfortable with error and retry, with the messy but scientific business of solving the hard stuff.


The Magic Clap

magic clapSo Friday. The fourth year just got a test back from me. They took a beating in it because I misjudged the length x complexity, but the major maths ladies and guys powered through and I shifted the marking pattern away from the worst damage.

The final question was doable, but not by people that had already had their courage sapped by the previous two questions. As I said, some of them surprised me, perhaps surprised themselves.

I riff with them for a moment after they have chewed their way through some tough concepts on logarithms and the question comes up: what music does Mr Noyce like?

I can see the expectations slide into place. Maths teacher, always neatly dressed, passionate about patterns. The savvy ones have me pegged for Bach and they are not wrong. But I decided to surprise them.

The Coup's "Magic Clap" blasts through the room and I write neatly on the whiteboard next to the video (because I am always a teacher) "This song is about resisting oppression. It is about the moment of choice."


They love it, as they should and I take a moment to reveal a drive.

"This is why I teach. It is the most powerful way I know of resisting oppression that does not involve hurting people. Mathematics is my weapon, because it cuts through nonsense and misinformation." I pause a beat and quote Gibson at them.

"The deadliest bullshit is odourless and transparent"

... and back to logarithms.


Alec's maths test


Alec is a heartbreaker for most teachers. He is not the smartest, not the most gifted, but he has an indestructibly cheerful nature and a loud bell-like voice that echoes through the class whenever he is cheerful.

Alec is often cheerful.

He gets really loud, but I do not want to keep saying his name, so  he sometimes gets the milder version of my teacher death-stare: the version with less Voldemort and more Kermit. Every time that happens Alec apologises sincerely (but often loudly) and throws himself into whatever is next with unstinting energy.

He generally does not score very well in mathematics - he is not wired for the abstraction, the sheer puzzle-solving jam of maths. It does not properly reward the out-bursting energy that delights (and confounds) his sports teacher. For Alec the things he is learning work better if they go somewhere in his world, build or bust a thing. Nevertheless he genuinely likes maths lessons, so I really hate handing out bad marks to him.

Fortunately, Alec's last maths test was excellent. I set a very focussed test and he had obviously worked very, very hard. So after marking his test I looked at the mark in the corner and thought "that is not enough", so I took my red pen and listed as plainly and factually as I could all the good things about his test: his clear handwriting, his well-separated steps in a logical sequence. I did not write "great" or "clever", but I did put "you obviously studied hard, well done!".

Giving the right kind of compliment is key. Alec might easily find places in his life where he was not "great" or "clever", because we all do that when we get a vacuous compliment. We distrust it and we find counter-examples all too easily. But it was undeniable that Alec had done clean, painstaking, logical work and my noticing that might help him feel awesome.

When I gave the test back he already knew the mark, because it was already posted in the school's homework-diary system, but as I passed around the room I could hear him reading the comments aloud with enormous relish to his best friend,  the calm and dignified Justin. When I glanced back, he was luminous with joy and pride.

Job done.


Tales from Teaching: Taking a hit

Depressed maths teacher

Well today was a rough day. One of the downsides of teaching is the quantity of moving parts. I give a couple of serious maths tests every term and they take a lot of marking. As I have six classes of about thirty students that is about.... please raise your hand, yes indeed 180 tests (generally two or three sides of close-written mathematics) to mark about every three to four weeks.

That is complicated by the subject I am teaching. Marking mathematics involves not just checking if the answer is right or wrong but also doing a little analysis of the wrong answers to see if the process was correct. I give most of the marks for doing the maths and take relatively few marks off for losing a minus sign or making an arithmetic error. Marking is hard mental labour and it takes a good deal of experience to get fast at it. I am still climbing that learning curve.

Naturally some kids are ill or absent for a test and then need to take a variant of the test at a later date and sometimes I am a bit too nice and let someone have another crack at a really tough test. That adds to the load because you have a different set of answers for the variants and they have to be handled out of the main bulk.

That adds up to a lot of paper, which has to be carefully assessed, marked, returned and also input into the school's database.

Now this goes fine most of the time but, in that huge volume of stuff it is easy to miss a question, not write down the right number, not add up the marks correctly or even mislay a test paper. The other party to the transaction, the child and very often an anxious parent has a  lot more bandwidth to scrutinize your work and they are powerfully motivated to find any kind of loophole that might add even a fraction of a mark to the final score.

For this reason some schools do not allow students to take their test papers home: it causes grief. I allow them to take the papers home and I encourage them to look carefully at their test papers. I even ran an experiment where they could revise a question and get extra marks. It produced surprisingly detailed responses.

Sometimes you get conflict though. The head of the lower school got a long, woolly and very grumpy email about my teaching skills last week. There were some very reasonable criticisms but there was a lot of unnecessary blaming going on too. Parents (and I am a parent too) get anxious and it does not always bring out the best behaviour. I was honestly very, very upset, slept badly and I was very grateful that I had some time to process the emotional impact before seeing that class again. Fortunately the head of lower school is an old hand and very pragmatic, we had a good conversation with the head about it and we have it under control: he gave me some stern but supportive advice so I have learned to be more careful and perhaps a little less flexible in future.

It made me realize how vulnerable this job is, how intense the scrutiny is and how tension inevitably mounts as the year goes on and the test results accumulate: mathematics is a crucial core subject. Failing mathematics could cause a student to repeat a year or even change school. This is undoubtedly not the last time I will come under fire from parents, so I will have to be a little more paranoid in future...