College students are "wannabes". That is they wannabe a plumber or a beautician or a chef or a nursery nurse. They didn’t come to college to do more maths…imagine their surprise.
GCSE maths resits. There I’ve said it. Three little words that often strike fear and provoke a groan from staff and students alike.
Yet, there is an army of people in further education who will always be willing to work with the least motivated, and I doff my mathematical cap to each and every one. (NB: a mathematical cap is rather like a chef’s hat, only with an equilateral triangle.)
Failure: the worst F-word
Professor Susan Wallace applied a wonderful acronym to describe many students in a resit class: "Rhinos".
That is to say, they are "really here in name only" because they have to be. And we generally feed our rhinos the same diet they have had for 11 years in school.
It didn’t work then and won’t work now. Maths is like Marmite: you either love it or you hate it. But it really doesn’t have to be like this.
Often, in colleges, it isn’t this way either. My days are spent, with my marigolds of multiplication and my “money can’t buy” mathematical tea towels, filling the maths toolboxes of college staff all over the country who are trying to engage with students in a resit class who have all “failed” before – and that’s the worst F-word there ever was.
Colleges rise to the challenge
The resit debate is everybody’s problem – from the principal to the learning support assistant via the specialist maths teacher.
The maths teacher in a GCSE resit class can be as welcome as a crocodile in a crèche.
Yet colleges constantly rise to the challenge. They are resourceful and creative because they have to be. They have that annoying persistence and resilience that students loathe – the persistence that does not allow any student to go by unnoticed or unchallenged mathematically.
GCSE maths teachers in an FE college are like gold dust. They work in the most sought-after subject area and can work anywhere and for anyone, any sector, any setting, if they are any good.
Yet they choose FE, where the vagaries of grade boundaries and norm referencing can trash your results in a heartbeat; where students all come into class sharing the commonality of failure; where it is highly likely that your final results will be less than 30 per cent achievement.
But for every one student that does get their golden grade 4, that is 100 per cent achievement for them, and the sense of satisfaction for a resit teacher is like no other.
It means that the student never has to do it again – and again, and again, and again – like the hundreds of their contemporaries in any one setting.
It's about positivity
So I doff my mathematical hat again to all staff involved in GCSE maths resits. It’s a tough old job. I see at first hand the extraordinary lengths that colleges go to in selling positive methods, making the case for resits, celebrating and exposing the maths in everything they do.
There are 12-foot-high posters celebrating maths, annual maths awards, “I love ME” badges and T-shirts to name a few ways in which the FE maths profile has changed.
Someone recently shared this with me and it resonates: “Everything will be all right in the end…if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.” That exemplifies the resit saga for me.
Here are 10 surprising facts that show the resilience of a resit teacher
- They send “wish you were here” postcards when students miss their resit classes.
- They frogmarch them from the vocational workshop to resit classes and sit outside the room reading a book until students get the message that it’s part of what you do here at college.
- They run extra sessions and revision classes, unpaid and often at weekends and in holiday time.
- They sometimes have classes of 47-plus students (because there is no one else to teach the subject).
- They teach classes without any photocopying possible because of funding constraints.
- They have weekly contributory lunch meetings and CPD time, often unpaid.
- They are teaching students who have failed maths multiple times: four, five, six, or even nine times is now quite common.
- They constantly search for the golden key to success for their students – a new idea, the best resources, constantly magpie-ing ideas, tweeting about GCSE resits, attending conferences
- They digitally innovate, making YouTube tutorial channels, Padlets, Kahoots, Quizizz quizzes and so on.
- They are as desperate for their students' success as those students are.
Julia Smith is a maths teacher trainer and author. She tweets @tessmaths