Maths - Help! My pupils are brighter than me

The only thing to do is to delight in their intelligence

Returning to the classroom to teach maths after several years away was never going to be easy. I recall my first lesson and the first pupil I tried to help. We were using the Smile system of workcards, and he had his hand up.

"Hello," I said. "So, what's the problem?" A face older than its years looked me up and down. He introduced himself as Alex. I was the latest in a string of teachers for this group: would I be any good? "I don't know how to make this bigger," he said.

The card involved picking a centre of enlargement for a shape and drawing lines through the corners to create the enlarged figure. I was battling with a sense of vertigo and could not make head nor tail of the question. My own school maths education had been traditional fare, all Euclid and no transformation geometry, a situation that my degree had done nothing to rectify.

"Er ..." I floundered. "Maybe if I did this?" offered Alex, having found a solution. "Yes, good idea," I muttered hopefully. "And I think that if you draw this line ..."

"No, look, it's this one," he replied. "It's all right, I've got it now."

I moved on to my next pupil and, as I turned, I heard Alex say wearily to his neighbour: "That's all we need - a thick teacher."

Twenty years on, I hope if I tried to help Alex I would be able to. But the memory raises the question: what happens if the pupil is brighter than the teacher? Must the relationship break down, or can that situation be turned around with a little skill into one that works well? My A-level maths groups are a mixed bunch. Yet I find myself teaching two or three pupils who are seriously bright, whose questions are excitingly perceptive and who will probably become more effective mathematicians than I am.

There are two types of brighter-than-the-teacher pupils. One looks at your equation on the board and says: "Don't you mean one over x cubed, Jonny?" The other will put it kindly: "Jonny, I like your equation but, I wonder, could it be improved slightly?"

The brighter-than-me but humble pupil is a joy to teach, the brighter-than-me but competitive pupil is harder work. But maybe there is a message there: do not try to outdo those who would overtake you. Instead, put your ego to one side and rejoice in your pupils' brighter-than-you-ness.

Jonny Griffiths teaches at Paston College in Norfolk

What else?


Visit Craig Barton's collection of resources for working with gifted and talented pupils. He has chosen his top 10.

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