Career in crisis

27th June 2003 at 01:00
Q) After 15 years teaching maths at all levels in an FE college, my partner moved into senior management but continued to teach A-level. He consistently had 100 per cent pass rates and a high percentage achieved AB grades. It was generally acknowledged he was an excellent teacher and manager.

For a variety of reasons - lack of financial reward, frustration with management and the feeling that he was becoming removed from what he enjoyed doing - he moved back into a secondary school environment about six months ago. He has been shocked by his inability to control and motivate bottom-set students.

He is fine with top sets and sixth-form students. He is a good teacher, a maths specialist who has instilled his love of the subject into many students who have subsequently gone on to maths careers. He also has high-level management skills.

However, he is starting to question not only his own ability but whether he has the energy to start again, regularly spending 12-15 hours a week on preparation and marking; he is frustrated and drained by teaching bottom-set students who have no interest in the subject. He has had no support from his managers (although colleagues have been very supportive).

He feels he is not creative enough in the classroom - recently he spent hours researching suitable web-sites so that some of his less able students could try something new, but did not take them into the computer room again after they spent the whole session "messing about".

Surely there have been huge developments in classroom teaching since he trained in the 1980s? There must be tons of new material on working with lower-ability children and teaching maths generally. The school cannot afford to send him on training courses and yet he needs motivating.

He had at one time hoped he could aim to apply for advisory or inspection posts but now feels his perceived lack of ability to engage bottom-set groups indicates he does not have "excellent" teaching skills.

So where now? Earlier in the year he had been looking at starting a masters degree in a mathseducation-related area, but now realises this will be impossible due to diminished energy levels after a day in the classroom and the amount of marking that has to be done. He does not want to "give his life" to his job - he is now 45 and has two young daughters.

A) Your partner needs to speak to the head of department and colleagues about the difficulties he is encountering and ask for their support. Direct him to the website at www. to see the column about issues of maths homework (May 10 2002).

The amount of time he spends on preparation and marking will diminish with time. There have been so many changes both in content and style of delivery that it is almost like being a newly qualified teacher again.

Computers are not always the answer for a demotivated and difficult class.

They might be receiving a great deal of computer content in other areas and be bored, despite a really well planned lesson.

Lower-ability maths students often have a short attention span so the work needs to be organised with this in mind. It is important to get them involved quickly - long-winded expositions will see them switch off and become bored. They need regular feedback so they can build confidence in their own understanding of the subject matter. A confident class is a motivated class at this level.

You don't mention if your partner works with a support teacher. In lower-ability groups, they are a wonderful resource, not only in lessons but in planning activities. It is a good idea to arrange an informal meeting with with the support teacher, who can let him know about more difficult pupils and how other staff deal with them and motivate them to contribute positively to the lesson.

They will also be able to tell him about particular maths difficulties that individual students may be having. Working with support teachers can pre-empt possible bad behaviour, and there is the benefit that the support teacher can monitor the work of the majority of students while the teacher concentrates on supporting individuals or pairs of pupils. This is a good way to build pupil respect for the teacher's ability of the teacher - the "wow factor". Maybe that is why private tutors are thought of so highly.

Perhaps a masters could be considered, with research based in the motivation of pupils in lower-set maths groups?

Wendy Fortescue-Hubbard is a teacher and game inventor. She has been awarded a three-year fellowship by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) to spread maths to the Mathagony Aunt at Or write to TES Teacher, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX

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