Christine Utber reflects on the difference a maths teacher made to her career, dispels the myth of the ‘maths person’, and discusses why she hates when students say “I don’t get it!”
Where do you work and what is your role?
I am a mathematics teacher at an all girls independent school on the Mornington Peninsula. I am in in my 14th year of teaching at this school.
What is your educational background?
I completed my secondary years of schooling at a small country school in the township of Mallacoota, Victoria. There were only 12 students in my Year 12 cohort! I moved from Mallacoota to Melbourne to begin a Bachelor of Science at Melbourne University. Two years into my degree I changed to a Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Teaching (Secondary) at Deakin University.
Were you good at maths at school?
I enjoyed maths at school, and because I enjoyed it I put in the time to practice it, which made me good at maths which in turn made me enjoy maths even more.
What role did teachers play in nurturing your maths ability?
At my very small country school there were not a huge amount of teachers so I actually had the same mathematics teacher for over half of my secondary schooling, mainly in my junior years. I was so lucky that this teacher was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about mathematics. He pushed me to extend myself whilst supporting me at the same time. His lessons were structured but interspersed with humour and his kind nature.
When did you choose to specialise in maths teaching?
It wasn’t until my second year at university that I chose to specialise in maths teaching. I was completing a science degree with a focus on Psychology and Biology, with just a couple of maths subjects to fill up my course. I enjoyed the mathematics classes and the statistics side of psychology so much that I decided to change my focus and work towards being a maths teacher.
What are the best parts of teaching maths? And the worst?
The best part of being a maths teacher is getting to work with students and helping them succeed. It is a privilege to be in a role that is influential to young people.
The worst part is hearing students say “I don’t get it!” When students say this it often means they have not even tried to understand the problem or begun to attempt the question. Instead, ask your teacher specific questions or try to verbalise what it actually is that you may need some help with.
Where do some maths teachers go wrong, or what are some pitfalls to look out for?
Don’t skip the sense-making step. Sometimes due to time limitations or feeling like the content may be a bit tricky for students teachers may jump straight to showing the formula and practising questions without delving into where it all comes from. Some students may find this difficult but for some it will bring the clarity needed to really embed the knowledge.
Is there a difference in your classes between boys’ and girls’ approach to maths?
There are differences between approaches, but I have only taught at an all girls school so don’t see it in action on a daily basis.
What advice would you give to a student who says they’re not a ‘maths person’?
Stop saying it! Self-belief is so important to succeed in anything. Yes, maths can be hard, but everyone can be a “maths person” if they realise that a difficult question is just a difficult question and requires a bit more effort, not questioning your entire mathematical abilities. Maths success requires hard work, preparation, practice and self-confidence. It is also important for students to focus on their own successes and not compare themselves to others or the “average”.
What are the most important maths skills to master?
Of course it helps to have basic number skills such as times tables and fractional knowledge, that only makes the more difficult questions easier as you are not getting bogged down in the calculations. Another important skill is the ability to check the feasibility of an answer by asking if it makes sense. Is it a reasonable answer or could I have made a mistake along the way?
But the most important maths skill is being able to recognise the maths that you already know that can help to solve the problem you are currently faced with.
Is maths teaching changing as a result of technology or any other influences?
In the time I have been teaching maths I have seen changes as a result of technology. The features of the CAS calculators mean a lot of the routine mathematics can be solved more quickly than by hand so we have the ability to use these tools to bring depth to learning by investigating and problem solving.
There are also numerous online learning platforms now that can supplement teacher instruction and allow personalised learning programs for students.
How do you help someone who fell behind in Maths and would like to improve their understanding of maths?
It is important for students to understand what they DO know to build their mathematical confidence and then ask questions, take risks and with some hard work and determination they can improve their understanding.
Why do you think some people lose confidence in their maths ability?
People lose confidence in maths when they don’t see their mistakes as learning opportunities but as a constant that cannot be changed. A mistake is a time to learn not a time to give up.
And finally, why learn Maths?
Most maths teachers would get asked this on a regular basis, along with “but when are we ever going to use this”. There is a real life application for every form of mathematics, but not every student will use every piece of maths they have learnt in school, some students may go on to employment that does require advanced mathematical skills, others may never use Algebra again once they walk out of the school yard. BUT learning mathematics teaches a way of thinking. It provides opportunities to use analytical skills in a methodical and logical way to approach problem solving. The approach to solving problems is why everyone should learn mathematics.