The World is charged with the grandeur of God: why I teach maths

During Summer Institute I became increasingly aware of how different people’s motivations to teach can be. I would be interested to know others’ reasons for teaching and, specifically, their rationale for choosing their subject. Jo Facer’s beautiful post on what education means to her was also part of the inspiration; I hope other people will also feel inspired by her post and do the same.

I was prompted to think about it due to a conversation with an English teacher from the 2012 cohort; her interest lay in helping children to become better at transactional writing (“If they leave capable of writing a CV, a covering letter and report I’m pretty happy,” or words to that effect), and she didn’t find much pleasure in teaching literature. As a child I’d always assumed I’d teach English, fine art or humanities, as those were the subjects I enjoyed the most through school (and got the best grades in – the direction of causation is unknown, of course). Accordingly, I had some reference points to think how different are my reasons for (almost) being an English teacher: a love of words. My life feels richer for etymology, wordplay, the various arrangements and rhythms in a poem, words’ power to allow us to build and share lives other than our own. I lapse into almost-ecstasy when I find new depths in a verse I thought I understood or- more wonderful still- hear a perfectly crafted pun. Re-reading a (good!) novel can feel like a revelation; new insights only serves to underline how much more I have experienced the world and gained from it. It’s not restricted to English – I like words in Irish just as much and its playful syntax is a joy for the reader/listener (for non-speakers, Flann O’ Brien may be an accessible starting point).

So why am I maths teacher, giving this gooey enthusiasm for English? (incidentally, I have similarly overblown raptures for the humanities and art, but won’t bore you with them)

1. I want to be a transformational teacher. ‘Transformational’ is one of those semi-embarrassing Teach First words that forces you to decide if you’re willing to be utterly earnest about addressing educational inequality. I’ve come to realise my personal discomfort about expressing such an ambition is irrelevant when compared to the extent of the need for great teachers. So: I want to be a good enough teacher that I make a significant difference to my students’ opportunities.

Maths was the first subject where I struggled but persevered. I find it hard to empathise with students’ struggles in subjects I always found easy (even at KS5, I found art, English and history fairly easy), as much as I might sympathise. That lack of self-awareness seems like a major barrier to teaching effectively and the unending task of improving my subject knowledge in maths gives regular (albeit painful) doses of humility.

2. I would have given up maths, or moved to foundation, had it not been for Ms Smith. I have never met a teacher with greater belief in the power of purposeful effort as the path to success. Nothing motivated me more than knowing she’d publicly rebuke me for getting less than 95% in our fortnightly tests whilst, in the same breath, praising students who made it 80% for the first time. Even when I finished my degree and visited the school to ask her advice about being a maths teacher, her response was to warn me that I still had a long way to go if I was going to be good enough to teach it: “You thought I didn’t know that you only ever revised the night before tests. That won’t be good enough if you’re a teacher. A day ahead of the class is not good enough.” Where other teachers killed with kindness by praising me for being ‘clever,’ she saw through the arrogance and insisted on better. I don’t think I was ever praised until the day I took my maths exam, and even then it was praise for working hard, not for ability. I didn’t understand the power of female role models until I realised how much I wanted to give to other students what she gave to me.

3. My broader motivation to teach, and interest in education generally, stems from a desire to see a more equal and just society. Being well-educated is critical if my students are to be advocates for their own lives and their communities. Being well-qualified in maths is a passport to some of the most important and challenging professions and – rightly or wrongly – general academic esteem (for one’s self and in the eyes of others). Mathematical competence and reasoning gives a broader academic and intellectual confidence; I want my students to have that.

Additionally, maths has been at the heart of historical (and contemporary?) efforts to restrict educational opportunities and to perpetuate social inequality, particularly in terms of gender and ethnicity. For much of (western) history, girls were taught no maths, or a restricted curriculum; their resulting (relative) ineptitude was seen as proof that there was no point in teaching maths to girls or women. Similarly, maths has a sad history of being a subject where racist beliefs about intelligence were reinforced by restricting opportunities to it, whether in modern Britain (black children are disproportionately likely to be entered for foundation, reinforcing white dominance in STEM fields) or 19th century Australia (tests of mathematical knowledge were used to ‘prove’ that aboriginal children lacked the capacity for abstract thought and, by extension, moral reasoning – despite them having inadequate or no formal education at the time of testing).  Even now, maths is an easy go-to for low expectations; once a child is ‘difficult’ to teach, many are quick to conclude that they should only learn the maths they ‘need’ (utilitarian ‘functional maths’ that allows them to be part of, but never challenge, the economic inequality they face) and that it is a ‘waste’ to teach them any of the content that makes maths so wonderful.

4. The most important reason, that renders the others inconsequential: the beauty of maths reveals the beauty of the world and, for me, God’s beauty. It is easy to find the world dreary and empty of interest unless you have the knowledge and curiosity to see how intrigue and beauty abounds. We’re born with curiosity but the nature of adolescence is to feel ashamed to care about anything; we aren’t born with knowledge but it can be conveyed and stored. A maths teacher’s privilege is to be able to play a role in both. I reached a point in my education, particularly my mathematical education, when I realised I had lost the capacity to feel boredom; there is too much pattern in the world and its elegance can be illuminated with numbers. I know my students will have lots of times when their lives aren’t as I would wish and they can succumb to listlessness; nothing would make me happier than to know that they have within them the means to make the experience of living a more beautiful thing. To be educated is to have the means to shape and enhance your mental experiences. I think David Foster Wallace conveyed this rationale beautifully in his commencement speech at Kenyon College, and I recommend taking the time to view it:

* * *

I chose the title – The world is charged with the grandeur of God (the opening line of a Hopkins poem) -because it doubly conveys why I teach. One could interpret ‘charged’ to mean we are indebted; I have been blessed in my own life and am obliged to offer similar to others. An alternative interpretation is to say ‘charged’ means energised and fulfilled; as Foster Wallace puts it, I want my students to be able to “…experience a consumer hell-type situation and not only see it as meaningful, but sacred; on fire with the same force that built the stars.”


Filed under Education, Perceptions of Maths

5 responses to “The World is charged with the grandeur of God: why I teach maths

  1. This was a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Interesting stuff, thanks,for sharing. You mentioned you would be interested in hearing others journeys into teaching maths, I’ve written about mine before:

  3. Pingback: dy/dan » Blog Archive » October Remainders

  4. Cian William Michael O Carroll

    We know a mutual Irish Janet? Anyway, she pointed me to your piece, and I’m glad she did. I had a private secondary school education for which I’ve acquired a chip on the shoulder (pursued more out of a desire to at least change the group of people who were then bullying me, if not improve on them), and I’ve been set on public education since secondary school, but unsure of how to involve it in the kind of social change I believe in.
    So you are just plain amazing. I similarly struggled to be good at maths, and felt at the time that it’d be to my credit as a perspective in teaching, and I’m glad to see that’s held true for you. Studying Japanese now I similarly find that committed, consistent work is demanded of me – the same denial of joking around. I worked harder at maths than anything just to be as good at it as everything else, and relished it
    For now, my teaching is of the language assistant sort, and in the public school system of Japan; rather than the private English-teaching system of Ireland (the majority of that field)…but I may return to Europe to fully pursue mathematics teaching. Who knows? But I want to give what I have not just to those with plenty of privilege already. Your clarity of choice and course in that is really commendable.

    Something that might interest you relevant to maths teaching, accessibility and especially the beauty of mathematics is this Japanese series of curious popularity, reviewed here:
    Perhaps it is better explored by checking out the Bento Books website and trying out sample chapters for yourself:
    I supported this translation project on Kickstarter and I’m glad I did. The sense of maths as exploratory (not driven to the answer at the back of the book), worthy of discussion and beautiful overwhelms me. I typically only got that feeling with mathematics when I went “off-road” in secondary school. That it here is without gender exclusion all the better yet.
    Hope it’s of some use or interest.

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