Confessions of a torturer

30th January 2015 at 00:00

One of my students is looking really, really fed up. Her name is Sarah and she is gazing out of the window resentfully. If she had the option, she clearly wouldn't choose to be in my GCSE maths resit class right now. I decide to take a breezy approach.

"Sarah, you look awful: has your dog just died?" I ask lightly.

"Yes." she says. It seems to cross her mind that this is a game worth playing along with.

"What was he called?" I enquire.


"How long have you had him?" I persist.

And then, suddenly, the game stops being fun.

"I hate maths. I really don't want to be here," Sarah says.

"Have you tried the question I set?" I ask.

"I don't understand any of it."

"Look, I'll help. You've drawn a rectangle. What's its area?"

"I don't know and I don't care."

"So why are you here?"

"I was told that the government insists I come here."

"And you resent that?"

"I resent that totally."

"What else are you studying?"

"A-levels in English, art and media, and IT key skills. I've got lots of other things to work on. I don't need maths."

"But if you carpet your home, won't you need to know about area?"

"If that happens, I will ask someone who does know about it."

At this point, I have a number of thoughts. The first is: "Jonny, you're a charlatan, a total fraud, a completely crap teacher. If you were halfway decent in the classroom, you would surely be able to provide Sarah with a reasonably enjoyable maths experience. Hand in your resignation and start selling insurance today."

This is swiftly followed by: "Sarah, you ungrateful young woman, I have thought hard about this lesson and the least you can do is give it a go. Do you realise how unemployable you will be without GCSE maths? So get real and knuckle down!"

And then: "This girl is being tortured. She's tried this subject for years and years and has never enjoyed a moment. She has developed a phobia of maths that leaves her with borderline special educational needs. I am her torturer and, as the world has so painfully learned, saying `I'm simply following orders' is no defence."

Now the internalised voice of the vice-principal chimes in: "Jonny, the college needs the money! Making GCSE maths optional will sink us. Keep her in the room, whatever it takes."

My own thoughts intrude again: "Sarah is now 16, she has freely decided to continue her education at a sixth-form college, and she has chosen all her other subjects. Society sets an age at which a student is deemed capable of making their own educational decisions and she has passed this, but for some reason the age for maths is deemed to be higher. She says this is bizarre and unfair, and I cannot disagree with her."

I snap out of my reverie to see Sarah looking at me, concerned. "Jonny, you look awful: has your dog just died?"

Jonny Griffiths teaches at a sixth-form college in Norfolk

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