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The shortage of maths teachers has been well documented in recent months. A small survey undertaken by The Mathematical Association (MA) supports the sad conclusion that the situation is critical. In secondary schools, Sixth Forms and Further Education colleges across the country, maths departments are relying on non-specialist teachers to deliver course content; in September this year just 46 percent of maths teachers in the MA survey said their departments were fully staffed by teachers qualified to teach maths. That in itself is extremely worrying – but the trend indicates that the problem is not going away.
I don’t think many maths teachers go into teaching for the money or the promotion prospects – neither are in great supply – but because they enjoy maths themselves and want to pass on that enthusiasm and knowledge to the next generation. But it seems to me that in the UK the pressure on teachers to ensure their pupils achieve good examination results is so overwhelming it is sometimes, unfortunately, at the expense of the pupils’ learning, especially when it entails spending disproportionate amounts of time question spotting and doing practice papers. Preparing to perform well in examinations can of course lead to better results – but this style of cramming does nothing to develop depth of understanding or to allow knowledge to be retained in the years to come. For teachers who are passionate about their subject, this pressure to achieve targets at any cost puts them in a state of tension – they believe that what they are doing is not in the long term interests of their pupils (or the subject) but they know that their school performance, and their own, will be judged almost solely on those results.
This is why I believe the maths teacher shortage has more to do with retention than recruitment. I believe that a teacher’s role is to teach whilst keeping in mind the integrity of the subject. When done well, good results will follow and the necessity for extensive examination practice is minimised. A second, connected, belief is that teachers will only stay committed to the profession if they enjoy the mathematical experience of teaching. Whether working with students who are just entering secondary school, or teaching those who aspire to a maths degree, the subject itself has so much potential for surprise, elegance and challenge. The combination of the pressure to hit targets together with an excessive workload means that it’s rare to hear a maths teacher use that vocabulary to describe what goes on in their classroom.
Our government is keen to import mathematics education ideas from Asian cultures such as Shanghai and Japan – but without the recognition that the cultures in which those practices operate view the teaching profession very differently. Perhaps we should also be trying to emulate the educational environments of these countries, in which teachers are shown a great deal more respect, and their professional development is invested in. They are provided with, and expected to use, a realistic amount of time to work with others on developing deeper understanding of their subject. It is acknowledged that this ‘mastery’ of their craft takes years, not months or weeks. They are given reasonable amounts of time within their working day to prepare for and reflect on their lessons and they are encouraged to feed back to policy makers who value evidence from classrooms. Teachers are seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if policy makers took the needs of teachers seriously and addressed them head on? By making the actual job of teaching more fulfilling, more maths teachers might be inclined to stay the course. And that is something we sorely need.