If my maths teachers could see me now

Intermediate School 

For the record, if you’re not from NZ, intermediate is a two-year school after primary school (elementary) and before high school (often called College in New Zealand). Intermediate is most Kiwi kids’ 7th and 8th year of schooling, and students are usually 11-ish when they start, like the first year of Hogwarts, but with fewer owls. Because we start school at 5, we have 13 years of schooling, now called Years 1-13, although when I went, it was New Entrants and J1, J2 (J standing for Juniors), and Standards 1-4 at primary school, followed by Form 1 and Form 2 at intermediate and 3rd-7th form at high school. Kindy (Kindergarten) is for 3 and 4 year olds.

In 1996 I first started to get the idea that maths wasn’t cool. Also, it was a bit boring, and we seemed to do the same stuff over and over again.

I think 1997 was the last time I enjoyed maths at school. I was placed in the ‘nerd class’ (actually I can’t remember if it was commonly known as the nerd class or the brainy class, but it was a maths extension class) for my second year of intermediate with Ms Freeman. Her first name was Cat and I remember seeing a Cat Stevens CD on her desk and being quite confused that Cat Stevens was a man. I took pride in learning some of the same maths concepts as my older brother, 2 years above me at school. I don’t think he enjoyed that as much as I did, and probably made sure I suffered for it in other ways.

High School

In 1998, my first year of high school, I was streamed into the ‘brainy class,’ and mostly enjoyed it. I was turned off science by a truly terrible teacher who had no idea how to run a classroom and once singled me out in front of my friends to express her shock and disappointment at my getting “only 98%, Emma!” on a test. I thrived in English and Social Studies. I struggled with another bad teacher in Art (“you and your brother deserve to be orphaned”), but my passion for languages was ignited in German by one Mr B-P, whose political career was later marred by complaints based on his actions as a teacher. As far as I can remember, we had a good maths teacher. But I was bored. The previous year, I’d been doing 4th form work. That wasn’t taken into account at all. I wasn’t the only one in that position, though I think I was the only girl.
From 1999-2001, I struggled through my maths classes, experiencing success but not enjoying it. On the first day of school in 7th form, I told Ms Shannon I wasn’t taking Stats OR Calculus for my final year of school. I’d come top of my year in 6th form and got a “1”, and that was as much as I was willing to put myself through. Her jaw dropped. I found it highly amusing. Partly because I’d never seen anyone’s jaw literally drop in real life before. She later told me, half-joking, that they were hoping I would skew the school’s achievement statistics up with a scholarship grade in Calculus. I could easily have told them by then that my friends Anah, Andy and Anthea were a much better bet for that, or the international students who had a different approach to education. I’d lost my academic fervour, had begun to drift on a plane of apathy, became more concerned with how I looked and who I hung out with, and battled with the Black Dog of depression. Many years later, an old classmate said she and another classmate were reminiscing and couldn’t remember who got Dux, and was it me? I laughed out loud and said no way, that was definitely Anah, and no-one deserved it more. She worked her butt off. After four years of straight Excellence medals in prizegiving, I don’t think I even got a Merit one in 7th form. I don’t think I even made it to school for Form Time 50% of the time. Because I enjoyed, and was good at exams, I still managed to pull off an A bursary (and for my efforts, received the grand sum of $200 from the government, an amount that hadn’t changed since the 60s when university was free – yep, still bitter about that).


I went to university because all my friends were going, and because I didn’t know what else to do, and because I was afraid that if I put it off for a year to do what I really wanted (travel), I would never go back to the student life (and then I’d be a loser, I thought). Even though no-one else in my immediate family was a university graduate, I had grown up with the expectation that I would go. It had never really occurred to me not to. I guess I was the epitome of that entitled middle-class white kid that frustrates so many people: who goes to university “for the experience” and takes a course that leads to no practical career. Fine in the 60s, when university was free, or if you’ve got rich parents who can support you afterwards*, or if you marry rich, as smart girls used to be expected to do. Sometimes I think I would have done better not to go. I would certainy be better off financially, but once I decided to major in Theatre Studies at Allen Hall, I had the time of my life, and I don’t regret it. The friends I met, the personal growth I experienced, and the skills I learned in those years are all things I cherish. 
*Full disclosure: Despite not being rich, and despite the fact that I am 32 and have a BA, DipGrad, GradDipT and CELTA, my parents still loan me money from time to time to help me pay bills. I haven’t started paying them back yet. Yes, I am failing at adulthood.
In my first year of university (2003), I had a phone call from Ms Shannon, she of the dropped jaw of 18 months or so prior. She was doing her Masters in Education in mathematics, and her focus was on girls who are good at maths, but don’t pursue it as a subject choice. It turns out she had been thinking about me since I was in 4th form, back in 1999. She interviewed me. One of the papers I was enjoying at the time was PSYC101.
Ms Shannon: “If you decided on a career in, say, Psychology …”
Me (interrupting): “I wouldn’t. I would have to do Stats, and I don’t want to do that. I’ll pick something that doesn’t require maths.”
Back then, I had no concept of feminism, or the role of girls and women in STEM industries. If she was looking for something to support the notion that women and girls don’t feel accepted or encouraged in those areas, she didn’t get it directly. Indirectly, my experience of mathematics probably had a lot more to do with sexism than I would like to admit. If I knew then what I knew now, I wonder whether I would have looked for ways to enjoy maths (to prove girls can), or vehemently denied that that had anything to do with how I felt. Probably the latter. I felt that maths didn’t help me LEARN, it didn’t help me see things from different perspectives or develop my understanding of the world and people. That’s what I valued: the world and people, and different perspectives and LEARNING. I didn’t get any of that from maths. I liked Physics in high school, but not enough to pull me away from the humanities at university.
Ms Shannon wrote a paper about “Jane”. I didn’t read it until recently. I smile at her comments at the beginning: I want to apologise to her for not being able to fully articulate the way I felt about maths. I was young, and nowhere near as reflective then as I am now. I didn’t know how to express it, other than “I hate maths.”

13+ years later

So now I’m a teacher myself. Officially trained as an English teacher, my experience as a maths tutor*, along with the difficulty of finding English jobs outside of Auckland, has lead me to teach as much maths this year as English – long term relief positions, and mostly for juniors (y9-10). 

* I was an English tutor, a part-time job to help pay the rent while I was earning my teaching qualification, but when they asked me if I could do maths too, I said ‘why not?’ and took the test and passed with flying colours, surprising myself with how much I enjoyed it. There’s something satisfying about expanding quadratic equations.

I love maths. There is still a lot of it about which I have no idea what to say when students (mostly girls) ask the inevitable, “When will I ever use this in my real life?”

I honestly don’t know why it’s important to know that the values of co-interior angles on parallel lines with a transversal are supplementary. But it’s beautiful. 

I cannot for the life of me tell you when you will use the knowledge that (x+y)(x-y) is the same as x^2-y. But it’s pretty cool anyway.

I can’t explain why two positives make a negative, or why we can’t divide by zero, or when you will use trigonometry outside of being an engineer or a maths teacher. But they’re interesting things to know. 

Personally, I enjoy solving maths problems in the same way I enjoy crosswords. They make me think in ways different to my everyday-basic-operation mode. It feels like stretching your legs after a long journey, or turning the pillow to the cool side (or the first 30 seconds of going for a run, before it gets uncomfortable and awkward and I give up). They’re not things I do all the time, so when I do, they feel good.

I just watched an awesome video that made me geek-aliciosly happy, and realise how awesome maths is*. I can’t embed the video because apparently I have to upgrade my account to do that (and this is the first time I’ve logged in for 12 months, so that’s not going to happen). The link is here. I love how excited they are. 

*Edit: Clearly awesome. As evidenced by my use of the word “awesome” twice in the same sentence

As an English teacher, I love exploring new perspectives, and opening my students’ minds to different ways of thinking, or seeing, or experiencing the world. Now, I see maths as an extension of that. The relationship between John Steinbeck’s George and Lennie is like that between Candy and his dog. Just like corresponding angles on parallel lines with a transversal. Different situation, same thing. 

I honestly don’t think I could convince 14- or 18-year old me of that, though.

Categories: Flashback, Learning, Teaching | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “If my maths teachers could see me now

  1. Berenger

    I have much the same relationship with science. I had teachers who didn’t do much to stimulate interest in the subject (although perhaps I convinced myself that they weren’t going to regardless of their own effort), and so I turned away from trying at 5th form.
    Now it is everything.

    • Oh, science! It’s so cool!
      I love that it’s cool/socially acceptable to be nerdy and geeky these days.
      Two weeks into 6th Form, I switched from Chemistry to Photography. I got quite a lot out of photography, probably most usefully, the ability to talk to people I didn’t know that well. I used the cover of the dark room to test out conversation strategies I’d never have had the guts to try if they could have seen my face turn red. Apparently no-one else noticed I used to stutter, and it was only a minor stutter, but I was painfully aware of it. Gaining conversation confidence in the dark room helped me overcome it. But Photography took up WAAAY to much time in high school, and I earned my first and only failing grade in it in 7th form.
      I wish I had taken Chemistry, now.

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