Caring in the maths community

10th July 2009 at 01:00
Lifetime Achievement award winner John MacKenzie inspires his colleagues and pupils

The essence of a good teacher is caring about your pupils and your subject, says John MacKenzie, winner of the Lifetime Achievement award at the Scottish Education Awards.

"If you do not care, steer clear of teaching," he advises.

Mr MacKenzie (pictured right), head of maths at Oban High, also advises fellow teachers to embrace new initiatives "with gusto" and to be willing to work with others.

Over the years, he has guided his department through the introduction of 5-14, Standard grade and Higher Still. Although he will have retired by the time A Curriculum for Excellence is fully implemented, he has been proactive in its introduction and feels he and his colleagues have made inroads.

"Initially, I was concerned there was insufficient direction, but I feel we are coming more to grips with what is required," he says.

Mr MacKenzie started teaching at St Columba's High in Gourock in 1972 and became assistant PT of maths the same year he completed his two-year probation. By 1979, he had been appointed to the principal teacher post at Oban. "I've never regretted that," he says. "It was the best choice I ever made in life because I love the area, the people and the culture. The children are a joy to work with. I'm also fortunate to work in a department where everybody pulls together."

Under him, the department has been through three successful inspections by HMIE in 1983, 1994 and 2004, which colleagues argue reflect the "high quality of learning and teaching . shaped and influenced by John's excellent leadership". They pay tribute to his "inclusive and exemplary" management style, while the department has developed a reputation for cohesiveness, team spirit and, above all, a sense of fun.

After the last inspection, HMIE described the department as a centre of good practice due to its "innovative approach to the teaching of mathematics". This led to visits by peers from the authority and elsewhere in Scotland, as well as from the then education minister, Peter Peacock. "I did toy with the idea of seeking promotion elsewhere, but I've been happy in the classroom situation, running the department, and being involved in the wider community as well as the mathematical community," says Mr MacKenzie.

He has been responsible for shaping the future of maths teaching in Scotland through his membership of the Scottish Mathematical Council and has worked for the Scottish Qualifications Authority as a marker and setter for 15 years.

In 2002, he received money from the New Opportunities Fund to set up a maths residential weekend for Advanced Higher pupils in Argyll and Bute. His networking abilities led to visits from a series of illustrious mathematicians. He persuaded Adam McBride OBE, of Strathclyde University, to attend the residential weekend; Peter Patilla, author of children's maths books, led a parentspupils workshop on interactive maths; Wendy Fortescue-Hubbard, acclaimed "mathagony aunt", did a class for parents and pupils on "algebra without aggravation"; and Rob Eastaway, an author who seeks to popularise mathematics, has visited.

For 30 years, Mr MacKenzie has been a supervising teacher at the school's residential hostel for children from the islands. "When I first arrived in 1979, I was provided with temporary accommodation in a flat in one of the three hostels the school had at that time (it now has one mixed hostel which can accommodate 85 pupils). I was impressed by the positive atmosphere. A lot of the boys were studying maths and asked for some assistance. I was pleased to help. Then, when I was asked to take up a role there, I decided I would do so because I had enjoyed it and enjoyed helping the students."

He has raised thousands of pounds in the local community to help disabled children and their carers make a pilgrimage to Lourdes - trips in which he takes part as a helper.

Testament to his success in inspiring pupils in his subject is the fact that two former pupils now work alongside him at Oban High. Many others have gone on to become maths teachers elsewhere, and four of his former colleagues are principal teachers in other authorities, thanks in part to his nurturing of their professional development.

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