Count on me
Many teachers end up teaching their favourite subject, the one that created a spark for them at school. So when Suzie Hardwick left school in 1975, aged 16 with a level 3 in CSE maths, she could never have imagined that 30 years later she would be starting work as a maths teacher.
"I used to hate it," she says. "It was my worst subject by far. Algebra was the final straw. I thought maths was supposed to be about numbers, and suddenly there were all these letters instead. Let's just say, I didn't quite get the concept of unknown variables."
The story of how she came to be on the graduate teacher programme teaching (GTP) what was her least favourite subject has a few variables of its own.
It features a maths-phobic daughter, a tutor who became a study-buddy, and an innovative degree course that appeared at the right time in the right place.
"It began seven years ago," recalls Suzie. "My daughter had just started secondary school and was really struggling with her maths homework. When I tried to help, I found I was even more lost than she was. It shamed me into action."
She signed up for a series of basic maths skills classes for parents at her daughter's school, the Grove, in St Leonards, East Sussex. Tutor Jo Fielder, a teaching assistant at the 11-18 comprehensive, reassured Suzie that numbers were nothing to fear.
It helped that Jo herself had not been a maths whizz at school, though she had managed a grade C at O-level. "I was never that keen on maths," she says. "But I'd been working as a general TA for about five years when the school said they wanted an assistant to be based in the maths department.
No one else stuck their hand up, so I did."
With Jo's patient tutoring, Suzie found her confidence grew. She began to see practical applications for her new skills, such as adapting recipes at the catering kitchen where she worked. But the biggest difference was a determination not to get left behind. "I struggled at school because I never asked questions. I didn't want people to know that I couldn't understand. This time, whenever there was something I didn't grasp, I just kept asking until I understood. Sometimes, I drove Jo to distraction," she laughs.
In 1999, Suzie took the foundation level GCSE and gained a grade D. That spurred her on to tackle the intermediate paper. Jo still acted as an unofficial tutor, though Suzie also enrolled at another evening class. "I'd only ever taught basic skills maths," says Jo. "I was teaching Suzie, but really I was teaching myself. I was just keeping a few pages ahead of her in the textbook." Suzie came out with a grade B, the best result possible at that level.
And that might have been that: the heart-warming tale of a woman celebrating her 40th birthday with a GCSE in maths. But Suzie's maths odyssey was only just beginning. First, with Jo's encouragement, she got a job as a TA in the maths department at the Grove. Then, a couple of years later, Jo and Suzie signed up together for a new degree course aimed at secondary school teaching assistants wanting to become English or maths teachers. Suzie's level 3 CSE was about to become a degree.
The course, offered by the University of Sussex, is the first of it kind, although Oxford Brookes now offers a similar degree for primary teaching assistants. It provides a mix of pedagogy and subject knowledge, leading to the award of a diploma after one year, and a BA in education studies after three. Crucially, it allows teaching assistants to stay in their posts for three days a week; they attend university on the other two. With the Grove subsidising their fees, and with the help of student loans, Suzie and Jo reckoned they could just about afford to take the plunge, even though it meant losing two days' pay each week.
It was a big step financially, but an even bigger one academically. "We egged each other on," says Jo. "But it was a mad thing to do. We went from intermediate GCSE maths to degree-level maths, with no AS or A-level in between. It wasn't a case of getting stuck occasionally; I was stuck for the best part of three years. Work supposed to take two hours would take 10 or 12."
The degree course at Sussex does not include teaching practice but encourages students to apply to the GTP and finish their training on the job. Jo and Suzie, who were awarded their degrees this summer, at the ages of 43 and 46 respectively, believe their TA experience has given them an edge now it's their turn to stand at the front and deliver the lesson.
"Over the years I've seen a whole range of teaching styles" says Jo. "You soon find out what works and what doesn't."
Simon Thompson, the course leader at Sussex, agrees that turning TAs into teachers makes good sense. Last year Jo and Suzie were among 16 graduates - including five in maths and seven in English - who Mr Thompson believes will make a long-term contribution to the profession. "A lot of new recruits drop out of teaching after a few years because it doesn't meet their expectations," he says. "But TAs know exactly what the job entails, so the retention rate is likely to be high."
The Sussex course attracts TAs from across the south, though Mr Thompson says some schools are reluctant to give assistants the necessary backing.
He has nothing but admiration for those who do make the leap from TA to BA to teacher. "A lot find their classroom skills undervalued, usually because they do not have many academic qualifications. There is still a massive divide between teachers and assistants and it is not easy to cross. This first group of graduates are showing it can be done; it just needs courage and commitment."
Suzie lacks neither. "Whatever the challenges of being a teacher, they can't be as difficult as the challenge of the degree. After that, I feel anything's possible." Having started work as a graduate teacher at William Parker school in Hastings this term, she will gain qualified teacher status before her one-time mentor; Jo has opted for school-centred initial teaching training, which means it will be 18 months before she qualifies.
Suzie began by observing lessons, although by Christmas she will be teaching nine hours a week. After five years as a TA, she finds it hard to sit and watch. "The other day someone arrived late to a lesson, so I shuffled over and gave them a recap. I can't stop myself."
She is under no illusions about the effort that still lies ahead. "There are a few teachers who can just teach stuff off the top of their heads, whereas I will always have to prepare thoroughly. So that's exactly what I'll do." If the going gets tough, she says she'll be spurred on by the memory of her own days as a bored and baffled schoolgirl. "I know only too well that maths is a subject people can find difficult. I'll do everything I can to help those who are struggling."
Does that mean she will admit to her classes that she was once something of a maths dunce? "Definitely. It might help my students realise that you don't have to be a mathematical genius to succeed. You can get there by sheer hard work."