Interview between Eva-Sofia Meindl (Communications Prefect on Student Leadership Team) and Malcolm Williams (Head of Mathematics AND Chartered Mathematician). Mr Williams has been leading the Mathematics department at StGIS since 2016.
Have you heard the joke about the math teacher? Why should you worry about the math teacher holding graph paper? He is definitely plotting something.
This is definitely true for Mr Williams! There is always something exciting in his department; inspiring speakers, mathematics field trips, special mathematics evenings, or mathematics competitions; there is always a new challenge and plenty of support! His passion for education is recognised by his students and colleagues.
Interviewer: You recently became part of the Chartered Mathematicians. What did getting this qualification entail?
Mr Williams: There are four aspects to it. Firstly, you need to know how children learn. I’ve spent my career working on that. Of course I’ve done teacher training, and how people learn is a big part of that; we’re thinking and discussing it all the time, so I felt qualified for that part. The second part was mathematics. I have a degree in that and I’ve been doing it all through my career, so I felt confident about that aspect. The third part is about experience. I’ve taught in three different schools in the UK before coming to StGIS and I’ve met lots of different students with different learning needs. And the last aspect, CPD, Continuing Professional Development, that’s something I’ve been doing as well. For example, I did a course called Thinking Mathematically with the Open University. I think as teachers we have to carry on learning because there’s always a subject we might not have seen before or an area we could improve on. So, having been confident that I met the requirements, I had to fill out a detailed application and write quite a lot about each aspect, detailing what experiences I have had and how I felt I met the criteria. I also needed two references before I received my certificate. What a ‘chartered mathematician’ really means is that you don’t just have the academic qualifications, but that you also have the experience and you continue to learn about teaching mathematics.
Interviewer: What is the process of continuing to learn and ‘keeping up’ with your subject as a maths teacher like?
Mr Williams: What’s different about maths is that we study things that have been discovered many, many years ago and of course the field is moving on but it’s way too complicated for anything we teach at school. The same ideas and concepts continue to lie at the heart of teaching mathematics, but what does change are the different methods of teaching it. New resources become available all the time. Kognity, for example, which we have chosen to use. You need to wrap your head around everything that’s available, which takes time. Another aspect is that syllabuses change; from September, there will be a whole new IB Mathematics curriculum. That’s something else that’s a part of professional learning since all of us will have to understand the new material thoroughly before teaching it.
Interviewer: How do you manage to balance personal learning alongside work?
Mr Williams: You need to take a short-term view and a long-term view. Some tasks are more urgent; I know I have to mark some things or prepare lessons this week. And then you need to leave some time for more long-term, less urgent but also important tasks. What we do in Maths is we have a department meeting every week. We try not to spend all that time on administration but instead use that time for long time planning and professional learning. Otherwise, everything would get on top of us.
Interviewer: What is your favourite thing about your subject?
Mr Williams: I think it’s really lovely when I come across something I hadn’t really thought about before. Or sometimes a student comes up with a way to solve a problem that perhaps isn’t the standard way or how I would have done it. Something else that’s really lovely is what we call ‘magic moments’, which is when someone works on a problem they really don’t understand and all of a sudden they say: ‘Oh, I get it now!’ That’s something you don’t have so much in other subjects.
Interviewer: What is the worst thing?
Mr Williams: I think the worst thing about teaching math is when people say: ‘Maths is really hard.’ Especially when parents say: ‘I was really bad at maths at school’, which doesn’t really fill their children with confidence. I believe it’s not harder than any other subject. How well a student does depends on their motivation.
Interviewer: Sometimes students are frustrated because they feel like there’s no real-life application for the things they are taught in maths. How do you respond to that?
Mr Williams: There is a sense in which maths is the most abstract of all the sciences. What we try to do is to give maths a context and to show how it can be applied to different situations. Sometimes they can be a bit contrived because really, the situations where you need to apply the kind of math we teach, students haven’t met yet. Giving mathematics a context that everyone can relate to is another challenge of teaching maths.
With gratitude to our talented Mr Williams!