Virtually all the maths teachers I have met have been bright, funny, cheerful people

19th January 2001 at 00:00
So maths teachers are boring, are they? A survey published this month by Plymouth University says that pupils think we are all fat, bald nerds who spend our free time thinking about maths. If that weren't enough, they also think we are single and unstylish, and the only friends we have are other maths teachers.

So you're expecting a whinge from me, are you? you think I'm going to say it's all lies and that really we are the definition of cool. Well think again, as I'm going to speak only about the facts Ma'am, just the facts.

The report looked only at pupils' images of maths teachers. How all you other teachers must have trembled when you saw the headline "Teachers are nerds" in case it was your subject being talked about. Because if we ask any pupil what they think of us they will always see us as boring, tired and very, very old.

Think about your own teachers and the same image probably pops into your head. Maybe you started teaching thinking that you could change pupils' ideas about teachers - believe me, there's more chance of stopping a charging hippopotamus with a feather duster.

I asked my pupils what they thought about maths and maths teachers. I was shocked. They actually liked the subject, using words such as "interesting", "challenging" and, most frighteningly, "satisfying". They described their various maths teachers as "fun", "hard-working" and "good". These pupils obviously enjoy maths, so why this generally negative perception?

One reason could be that few people realise how much the subject has changed over the years. Ask people in the street what a maths lesson is like and they'll probably describe pupils sitting in lines while the teacher stands at the front going over an example which no one nderstands - before uttering that immortal line: "Turn to page 143 and do exercise F."

Though I have to admit I have done the odd lesson like this (including pupils not understanding what I was on about), most are nothing like it. Maths is now taught in various ways, with words such as "investigation", "experimentation" and "pupil-led learning" bandied around. Don't know what I'm on about? Then listen and learn.

None of the major theorems upon which our subject is founded were dreamt up by a mad professor; they are the result of someone looking at something and asking "why?" The job of the modern maths teacher is to make the pupils also work out why. They may forget something some bloke called Pythagoras came up with 2,000 years ago, but be less inclined to forget it if they come up with it themselves. Pupils nowadays do not expect just to be told things by their teacher but to have to think "what am I going to find out today?" So why is the reality so different? Well, to be honest, maths isn't really a sexy subject. Russell Crowe's next picture is never going to be Pythagoras - the revenge, a story of one man's struggle to find the square of the hypotenuse. You have only to look at the latest Vauxhall car ads with Griff Rhys-Jones to see that if you want to portray a mathematician, it's on with the old beard, glasses and bad dress sense.

Virtually all the maths teachers I have met have been bright, funny, cheerful people. I have never met anyone even remotely like the nerdy person described by the pupils in the research. And, anyway, as long as my pupils and I are happy with what we're learning together, that's all that really matters, isn't it?

Mark Finnemore teaches maths at Latymer school, west London

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