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Undermined by bad behaviour

Q) I have just returned to teaching maths in secondary school after a long absence to have children and am covering for a colleague on sick leave.

I taught for only 18 months before I had my family so feel really rusty, both subject-wise and professionally. Returning is a great shock, as the pupils' behaviour is unbelievable. The head of maths has his office next to my classroom and almost from the beginning of term has come in when the noise has been too much and taken over the lesson. This makes me feel that the reason the pupils are so badly behaved is because my maths teaching is so bad. I feel totally undermined and don't know if I should carry on to the end of the term. I really can't teach maths any more.

A) Maths is high on the list of emotional subjects: there can be huge excitement with success, but enormous lows with failure. At the recent annual conference of the Scottish Mathematics Council, your kind of experience was discussed by conference organiser Margaret Robertson and Susan Wall, head of maths at Wilberforce College, Hull, and myself.

We coined the phrase "learning damage", which can occur at any time in a person's career, not just as pupils. An off-the-cuff remark such as "people who make mathematical mistakes in front of their pupils should not be allowed to teach" may be damaging, when in fact mistakes show that we are human.

Your head of department has undermined your authority in the maths classroom. This interference might be interpreted by the students as a reflection on your subject knowledge or competence. The head of department is showing you up in front of the class, making you feel you are getting it wrong.

You mention that you feel rusty subject-wise, so you already lack confidence. Children are sometimes like chickens: they peck the vulnerable.

Your letter suggests you are feeling vulnerable.

Arrange a meeting with your head of department and let him or her know that their handling of the situation is having a negative effect on your confidence.

Strategies that might help you regain confidence include getting lesson cover so that you can work with small groups from the class to improve your relationship with them. Ask for time to team-teach certain topics that are perhaps those you consider your weakest. Also, the opportunity to observe other teachers is good as it enhances your repertoire of ways to manage behaviour. Furthermore, not all noise is negative; there should be a working hum in a maths classroom where pupils are not afraid to ask their neighbour for help or to discuss the problems they are working on.

Learning damage affects attitudes to maths, but we might not be aware of which actions are negative.

Susan Wall says students arrive in college lacking confidence because of teachers:

* showing them up in front of the class by asking them questions they cannot answer;

* making them feel really bad when they get an answer wrong;

* testing, testing and more testing, but never doing anything about what they got wrong;

* reading out marks;

* making them work in silence so that everyone can hear when they ask for help;

* giving speed tests;

* not allowing them to use alternative methods of solving a problem, insisting that their method must be used;

* insisting that mistakes are bad and must be avoided, thus instilling a fear of writing anything unless they are sure it is correct.

Susan encourages a "have a go" ethos and sees mistakes as a useful way of learning.

She encourages the following approaches:

* Use individual whiteboards so answers are not permanent and can be changed.

* Solve problems in pairs, using big sheets of paper with big felt-tip pens - a neat and tidy solution is not needed, just lots of maths with crossings-out if necessary.

* Ask open questions with lots of correct answers, so that students all give different answers. Discuss any misconceptions, thus avoiding the embarrassment of everyone knowing that your answer is wrong.

* Make deliberate mistakes on the board - this encourages students to notice.Thank them and don't be embarrassed about it.

* Use matching-card activities to promote discussion and encourage students to talk about their maths to each other, with the advantage of no written work. Cards can be moved around if, after discussion, something needs changing;

* Encourage students to support and help each other.

These methods have had a dramatic effect on results in Wilberforce College.

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