“These are the best years of your life,” my mother would often say to me in a tone wistfully tinged with nostalgia for the scent of ink drying on worksheets. “You should enjoy it while it lasts”. This piece of sage advice would be doled out whenever I had complained about school being too difficult, or too boring. “How could these possibly be my best years?” I pondered inwardly to my gawky, teenage self. “No best year of my life could ever possibly contain having to learn mathematics.”
I never got on well with numbers. They have an unfortunate tendency to require one to come to an absolute and irrefutable solution. My brain, for some reason I’ve never quite understood, does not deal as well with absolutes as it does with something I can explain in my own words. Can I give you the answer to that complicated equation? Probably not. Can I write you a poem or rattle off 500 words on what a writer’s intentions might have been when he put pen to paper? Absolutely.
We call this a comfort zone. Inside each of us lives a temperamental little beast with a fear of the unknown, that we try to wrestle from hiding to perform tasks it might not be very good at. The beast can be persuaded to do all manner of wonderful things, but to do this it needs to know it’s going to be in safe hands. When we are straying from our natural aptitudes in the formative first years of our lives, those safe hands belong to the right teacher.
The right teacher for me at least was a large, red-faced man named Mr Bruce. He remains to this day the only person who has ever made me feel like I might actually be able to understand numbers if given the correct environment to do so. Unlike other subjects that I was lucky enough to excel at without putting in too much strenuous effort, (I was one of those annoyingly lucky children who never seemed to need to study) mathematics required for me to work in order to understand.
Mr Bruce would loudly proclaim that he had never had a student fail his class. A bold claim, but impressively true. It made me feel safe. If he was confident that he could rescue those of us that were numerically challenged, then so was I.
While Mr Bruce never managed to kindle in me any sort of burning passion for mathematics, he at least made the subject bearable and much easier to understand: coaxing me out of my comfort zone into a place where I was happy to learn and no longer felt I was fighting an uphill battle. He was passionate; highly experienced, and never seemed to have an off day. He would take time to work through step-by-step what was needed to reach those elusive conclusions, and understood that some of us found it harder than others. I stopped dreading those lessons. The memory of being supported and nurtured has stuck with me until this day and cemented Mr Bruce in my teacher “Hall of Fame”. I am a teacher now myself, and thanks to him I ask if I am doing my best to be the right one for my students. I question whether I am doing enough to help the children I teach to overcome any discomfort they might have. Are they feeling safe enough to enjoy a lesson that might be as daunting for them as maths was for me? I hope so.
The same year that the exceptional Mr Bruce came into my life, the universe sought to take him away from me. That year my family moved to a different city. New school, new teachers. “It is okay,” I figured. “I get maths now.”
It wasn’t okay.
Some of the teachers at my new school were as wonderful as Mr Bruce was. They took the time to get to know me and my individual skills and inspired me to try hard and excel. Unfortunately, my new maths teacher fell as short of that as you probably can. I’ve remembered him too, but for entirely opposite reasons. With Mr Bruce I had felt that we in his classroom were part of a coherent whole; A vessel of knowledge boldly working towards understanding the problems together. In my new lessons, I felt adrift as I dully and dispassionately worked through the problems in my workbook: individually and mostly silently. My new teacher (whose name I do remember but I feel no inclination to shame him) very much seemed to me to be going through the motions. He seemed not to get any true enjoyment from teaching and stuck rigorously to the curriculum. He would briefly explain the concept, and then we would work from the appointed pages in our workbooks until the bell signalled the end of my torture. Every. Lesson.
Without the support of the right teacher, the numbers evaded my grasp again. The solutions became unclear and my grades slipped dramatically along with my enjoyment of the subject. When my final exam results came for that year I baulked at the result. I’d tried my best and received a C- The worst grade I’d ever received for anything. It was official. I was (in my mind at least) categorically bad at something. I was bad at maths.
But I wasn’t- and I knew it. At that age, with grades starting to determine our paths towards future endeavours, I knew that a teacher had failed me. I dropped maths as soon as I possibly could, for fear of more “bad” grades ruining my otherwise stellar report card. In less than a year, the wrong teacher had destroyed my faith in the idea that I might overcome my mathematical obstacle, and had driven the little beast inside me right back into its comfort zone to write essays and answer questions with too many words; never to be troubled by numbers again. Even when it came to choosing a science I went with biology: the least number-y of them all, I thought.
And so, armed with these memories and having experienced a dramatic dichotomy between two very different approaches to teaching, I summarise thusly: It’s not the subject; it’s not the coursework; it’s not the “theory” behind the teaching that makes the difference. It is the teacher themselves and the way that they choose to deliver that information to their students that makes the difference. It cannot be overstated that enthusiasm, passion and energy (or lack thereof) will funnel its way into the students themselves, and set them up for success or failure. A teacher may not yet have the decades of experience that Mr Bruce did in order to achieve his 100 percent success rate, but they can at least make the concerted effort to really care and to try and coax the children they teach out of their comfort zones in the way that he did for me. Simply taking the time to recognise that all students are different will go a long way in supporting them.
There will always be enthusiastic discourse as to what the most effective method of teaching is. It’s a question that has no definitive answer (unlike mathematical problems). There was nothing particularly new or innovative about Mr Bruce’s methods. He was very much a traditional sort of teacher, who simply managed to structure my learning in such a way that maths ceased to be scary for me for as long as I was under his tutelage. The best way I can strive to be the right teacher is by always examining my practice, and wondering if I can do anything better. I may never reach the level of the famed Mr Bruce, but I will certainly vow never to be the reason that any child swears off my subject for life.
Article Written by Lauren Carr @ The Overseas Teacher