So the tiny blond firstyear in my maths class will be represented by Chiyo from Azumanga Daioh. Chiyo started the year hoping I was a friendly teacher and gradually got disenchanted with maths, because it seemed hard. I have been working on boosting her self-confidence and last week I was fighting an uphill struggle.

The kids had to do a standard test: form-filling on a computer. Schools buy in these things as a metric, a way of judging the progress the children make in a year. The trouble is that many of them are badly made and inevitably you end up giving a test to children that is about things they have not learned yet. That is a bad thing. That is a way to crush a child's confidence without any academic value added.

Chiyo cried bitterly during the test, so I wrote a note for her to take home that said in strong terms that the test she had taken was no reflection on her abilities and hard work. It was a dumb test, but the whole class had to take it. That cheered her up a bit and this last week she has been putting up her hand and giving a lot of good answers. I have been giving her a bunch of air-time and sometimes turning to her when someone else did not know the answer: "Well I think Chiyo knows. What do you think the answer is Chiyo?"

So today she was asking about a problem with angles and as I sat down next to her I said: "I think you can actually solve this one. So when I work it with you, I bet you need to boop your own nose because you actually already know how to solve these." Chiyo looked at me seriously and agreed to my terms. We worked it and it dawned on her.

I raised an eyebrow and she solemnly booped her nose.

I finished up with "I think you are pretty good at maths Chiyo, but sometimes you get a bit uncertain. Good work."


My day is good.


Educating Asrar

hijab gir

One of the fabulous things about being a teacher is that it mercilessly slays your preconceptions and prejudices. The Slayer this week was a girl in a headscarf with a name like Asrar.

I teach Maths in HAVO, which is the second highest form of secondary education. I teach group 4, which is about 11th grade in the US and my group 4 classes are either A or B level maths. The "B" level is harder, more hours and essential for anyone heading for a technical/scientific career. Going from 3rd year Havo into Maths B means that you got a good maths mark that year and that the maths teacher supported your choice. Asrar is one of a number of my pupils who did not come from 3rd year Havo. They transitioned up from the rung below HAVO, which is called VMBO in the Netherlands. Making that upward step is hard, particularly in mathematics, particularly to B-level maths.

Asrar has also been hard work for me, because she is way behind the class and often asked that most impossible of questions: "I don't understand ANY of this." She is generally quiet, but sometimes tetchy, all the way in the back of the class in a headscarf and often locked in conversation with her best buddy. I had privately formed the idea that she and her bosom friend were not very bright and not going to make it and end up failing back down to VMBO.  So the other day, when the class was playing up and in the middle of if Asrar pulled a "I know nothing" I said in my preachy teacher tone (because sometimes I suck) "well it would help if your had gone to the remedial maths lessons as I advised you to do".

She got really righteously cross with me.

She had gone, from the first day. She was trying. She had even, from her own money, bough last-years (3 HAVO) maths book to practice from. I could see it on the desk. Asrar was angry and close to tears and I was truly deeply shamed. So I apologised from the roots of my soul and did the only thing I could to make up for it. I sat down and one-on-one worked through the problem she and her friend were stuck on. She was now only eight pages behind and obviously working hard to catch up. We worked the problem and as I we did so I realized that she was stuck because the assumptions built into the problem (it implied, but did not say explicitly, that you would solve with with calculator functions) were invisible to her. She did not expect to need to use the calculator because as far as she knew, this was yet another chunk of algebra the VMBO course had not taught her. She was stuck because she came from a different educational stream.

Once I worked though that calculator part she quickly identified and solved the time-scale and calculation parts of the problem that I had had to help the HAVO kids with. Suddenly I realized that she and her buddy were hard-working and a lot brighter than I had assumed but held back by the cruder, less-effective maths tools that they had learned in VMBO. So I sorted out a free maths tuition for them and I shall put in some extra hours myself. Hard-working motivated pupils are why teachers teach.

So I am prejudiced and I sucked somewhat. But I am learning, gradually, with a little help from Asrar.