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Maths - Put the brakes on

Sometimes ambitious children need to slow down

It is 4pm. My weary colleagues and I are slowly unwinding in the maths office, when there is a knock on the door.

"Could I have a quick word with Jonny, please?" says Michael in a bright, nervous voice. I don't sigh, but inwardly I think, "Is that my 'quick' or yours?"

Most of the aggravation in a teacher's life (not counting hassle from management and the government) arises from students who lack motivation. But there is another student who can be just as draining. I am thinking of the driven, obsessed student, the one who is likely to worry themself into a premature grave in advance of their exams. Michael is a case in point. Last year, he scored a high grade A on both his maths AS level and his further maths AS level. When the results for the first module of the A2 year arrived, he had once more scored an A.

"Pleased with your C3 score, Michael?" I asked.

"No," he said. "I only just got an A."

Now Michael is staying behind after college to seek my reassurance. "It's just that I keep making silly mistakes," he pleads. "I don't want to fail to get an A just through silly mistakes."

"But, Michael, we all make silly mistakes," I say.

"It's just that I know I can get an A, I've set my heart on it. I've started to cover the wall of my room with yellow Post-its ..."

I have a sudden vision of Michael's bedroom looking like an advert for Kraft cheese slices. I can stand no more.

"Apart from you, Michael, who cares what you get in your A level?" I ask, firmly.

His Bambi eyes look at me in a bewildered way, as if he has just seen me kick a puppy.

"I mean, I care, of course," I add, swiftly. "But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?"

Michael is too stunned to reply.

"Look, Michael," I say, gently. "The world is your oyster. University maths departments will be fighting over you. After that, employers will be. You are gold dust. Just enjoy being 17."

The next day, the further maths A2 group and I are tackling a piece of maths together.

Michael gives 2 as his answer.

"Shouldn't that be plus or minus 2?" says Charlotte.

She is right. I look at Michael. He jumps in a frightened way, but then a smile crosses his face.

Jonny Griffiths teaches at Paston College in Norfolk


For probability activities to engage and stretch the strongest mathematicians, try CIMT's "Probability of One" unit pack.

Inspire with DaveGale's guide to creative maths.

See Craig Barton's collection for more ideas to keep the gifted and talented occupied.

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