Why are teachers of maths portrayed in films as boring, unsexy and a threatto creative thinking? Jenny Houssart bemoans the lack of positive role models
Yet again we are facing a crisis in maths education. Secondary schools are having trouble recruiting specialists, and some believe there are not enough numeracy experts to go round in our primary schools. The Government's answer to this predicament has been to run a cinema advert to encourage entrants to the teaching profession. But, crucially, they have failed to realise that cinema-goers are influenced by feature films, not adverts. And films have been sending out clear messages about teachers, and rather veiled messages about teaching maths, for many years now.
One legendary screen teacher is Miss Jean Brodie, in charge of a rather mature class of juniors. She is fond of the word prime, but sadly she is not referring to numbers. The film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is memorable for a discussion between Miss Brodie and her head about the nature of education. Brodie sees it as a process of bringing out the best in children; the head feels there should also be some "putting in". As both agree that maths can only be taught by the latter method, Miss Brodie's class sees little of the subject. And, like most films featuring schools, this one contains a certain amount of pairing off. The main male contenders are the art and music teachers, with a female science teacher appearing as Miss Brodie's rival. There is no maths teacher in sight.
Another famous teacher of all subjects is played by Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love. He does teach maths, but only during the early part of the story when nothing he does is working. Thus we get fractions, problems about hens laying eggs and calculations in the context of buying your husband roast beef. In a blinding flash of genius, however, Sir sees the need to transform the curriculum and remove such irrelevancies. Maths is out; good manners and trips to the museum are in. And from that moment he never looks back.
When it comes to subject teachers, famous leads include the legendary Mr Chips, who proved that even a rather different Latin teacher could find a beautiful bride and grow to be loved by generations of boys. Years later came Mr Holland, the music teacher, who passed his love of the subject on to his pupils. Both teachers formed firm friendships - with a German and PE teacher respectively. Maths does not appear, and is mentioned only as a problem. Mr Chips once refers to "loathsome statistics", but Mr Holland is forced out of work by a decision to drop music from the curriculum. When he is fired, the enemy is revealed as maths: the new principal explains that it was a choice between music and long division.
Maths teachers are a little easier to find in comedies. There is Miss Wilson in The Belles of St Trinians, though her main distinction seems to be that she has no qualifications. We see inside her classroom once, where her objectives must have something to do with volume and capacity as the outcome is homemade gin. However, she obviously has the key to success, because the pupils show amazing mathematical ability when it comes to betting odds. Nor are their problem-solving skills to be sneezed at, as we see two groups of pupils trying to find the weight of a jockey. The younger girls do so with a contraption made of pulleys; a sixth-former makes direct contact with the jockey.
Finally, there is Carry on, Teacher in which the maths mistress, played by Hattie Jacques, is exactly as you might predict: stout, fierce and humourless. We actually see part of a maths lesson when she promises to deliver "some of the knottier problems presented by fractions and decimals". This is the only dull moment in a classic Carry On with plenty of slapstick and innuendo. It has a happy ending, despite mayhem caused by practical jokes and tension generated by inspection. The two inspectors fall in love with the PE and science teachers. Everyone realises that inspectors are not bad people after all. The maths teacher, of course, remains unloved.
The messages about maths teachers seem abundantly clear. When it comes to teachers of all subjects, the well-loved and understanding make a point of never teaching maths. Among secondary teachers, mathematicians are ugly, boring and a threat to creative teaching. In the romance stakes they are eclipsed not only by PE, art and music teachers, but even by Latin and science teachers and inspectors.
The time has come for producers to portray maths teachers more favourably. So let's have a film in which a primary teacher is rewarded with the undying gratitude of staff, parents and pupils for her skilled introduction of the numeracy hour. Or an epic about a sexy maths teacher who has pupils swooning at the way he teaches algebra. And what about a romance in which it was proved that maths teachers are greater lovers than even Office for Standards in Education inspectors? Now that might boost recruitment.
Jenny Houssart is a lecturer in maths education