Jason Stanley is the teacher he wishes he’d once had. He tells his first-year university students that mathematics is not beyond them, then he teaches them straightforward techniques so they can make sense of the numbers and gain confidence in their abilities.
It’s a down-to-earth approach by a down-to-earth man who still doesn’t quite seem sure he deserves his successes in life.
Jason was sexually abused as a young child and that experience, coupled with alcoholism and violence in his family home, dramatically affected his self-confidence. It took him years to find peace.
“I was born in Narromine in western NSW and, unfortunately, I was a victim of an incident when I was very young by a perpetrator known to the family,” said Jason. “My father was a drinker and that led to the breakup of the family in a strange way. My brother and I ended up moving to the city to live with my sister for Years 5 and 6.”
After two years, his parents took the boys back and they moved to Sydney’s eastern suburbs. There, Jason experienced another traumatic event – this time at the hands of a stranger.
“My family was completely dysfunctional,” he said. “They hadn’t healed, hadn’t progressed, hadn’t developed and were oblivious to even small slights against me, let alone matters of life-impacting significance. My schooling suffered all the way through.”
A child with aptitude, Jason did well at school in Year 7. But after the second incident, he found it hard to focus and he lost friends and his resilience. When the family moved back to his sister’s suburb of Engadine in southwestern Sydney two years later, the disruption was too much.
“I had a primary school change and a high school change, so by the time I got to Year 9 I was a spent force. I had no confidence, no esteem, no agency, no ability to be resilient,” Jason said.
“You know, you get the usual challenges – you’re a teenager, you’re young, you’re not going to be good at everything. But I happened to have this underlying burden that I had to carry with me from a couple of events that should never have happened to me, and that impacted me significantly.”
The young man’s upbringing had left him ill-equipped to function in the schoolyard, where he was badly bullied, and too distracted to keep up in the classroom.
“I hold no ill will against the bullies from those final years at Engadine, they didn’t know any better and they didn’t realise they were bullying a damaged kid,” Jason said. “It was sad and unfortunate, but that didn’t define the tragedy of my life; the previous events defined the struggles that I’ve had.”
One positive from that time was that Jason’s parents intervened to protect him from a known predator at the high school. Despite the history of family neglect, those actions saved their son’s life.
Rebuilding from the ground up
At the end of Year 10, Jason was offered an electrical apprenticeship with a large company in the city after someone pulled out of the job. Senior school wasn’t on the 16-year-old’s cards, so he said yes.
“I went to my father, who was a schoolteacher himself, and said to him, ‘Here’s my list of subjects for Year 11.’ I’d put three-unit maths, physics and chemistry. He just laughed at me and said, ‘Nah mate, you’re not going back to school – you’ve got to go get a job and start paying me rent.’”
The apprenticeship was the best thing that ever happened to Jason. He was earning money and, at the end of his first year, enrolled in TAFE at night to do an engineering certificate.
After completing his certificate towards the end of his apprenticeship, he enrolled in an electrical engineering degree part-time and, instead of becoming a sparky, became a cadet engineer at the same business. Then his dysfunctional early years caught up with him.
“I was thriving at work, I was solving problems, I was getting promoted, people were asking me to help them, I was developing my skills, but then I got to mathematics at uni – and I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the level of education I needed,” said Jason.
Instead, he got another job as an associate engineer at a manufacturing facility – a role without any study built into it – and sought to further his career another way.
“I started teaching electrical engineering at TAFE at night to get a bit more money, because by this time I’d met my wife and started having kids and stuff like that. And that spurred me on to do my education degree, because I didn’t have the maths to finish my engineering degree.”
By the time he was 30, Jason had worked his way up to chief engineer and finished his education degree. He then took a redundancy to become a teacher.
Making maths work
Jason got his start in schools as a TAS (technological and applied studies) teacher, but before long he was offered a job that spoke to his heart: teaching maths. The offer was conditional on attaining a specialist maths qualification, so he completed a Graduate Diploma in Mathematics part-time.
“I finally started to get the education that I needed,” Jason said. “I was teaching myself maths at the same time I was teaching Years 7–10 kids maths, and because I was studying too it all took.”
Over the next decade, he became deputy principal at that school and principal at another K–12 school. There, he began to identify gaps in the curriculum, to find out what was missing for him when he was young and what was needed to succeed at high school maths.
Jason’s interest in students’ welfare inspired him to study a Master of Education (Wellbeing in Inclusive Schooling) at Australian Catholic University (ACU). It prised open the tightly sealed box of his childhood and, during a particularly challenging time in his career, he suffered a breakdown.
In 2012, after a year off working through his trauma, Jason secured a job at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) as a curriculum developer for government schools. He’s still there more than a decade later, as an associate lecturer in the School of Mathematical Sciences, teaching maths and statistics to students transitioning to university-level maths and teachers who want to teach maths.
“I started running short courses for the public in my earlier contracts with UTS,” he said.
“I’d teach my version of the curriculum to see if we could inspire students and build their confidence. We had mothers returning to work, artists who were artists because they were told not to do science, people wanting to do maths and people who were not ‘maths people’… a whole range of people.
“That’s where I was able to refine what I call ‘the six steps of maths success’ – and that’s what I now support my students with. I train them how to recognise what they’re supposed to be doing.”
‘Maths is not beyond you’
Jason, who’s almost finished a PhD in intelligent tutoring systems for advanced mathematics, said his students give him glowing feedback – and his rewards come from making maths approachable.
“My students love what I’ve done. And I’m quite proud of myself. I feel like the demons of the past have been laid to rest to some degree, because I’m confident with my own mathematics.
“One of my roles is to test all the incoming science and maths students at UTS. I do that each year using the system I developed, and we give students a pathway and training to ensure they don’t fail. The purpose of it is to catch me, back in the 1990s, and to pull me aside and say, ‘You know what, this is not beyond you, this is something you can do – you just need a bit of training.’
“It doesn’t matter to me if my students can’t add fractions or multiply or do indices, if they can’t do inverses or exact values trigonometry. I’ll teach them those topics and they will thrive. And all the students who I have encountered, who’ve come in tearful or feeling less than, they love maths.
“So, I’ve taken the mystery out of mathematics. It can be incredibly confronting and threatening, but I’ve taken its power away. If you encounter the maths curriculum with me, you’ll end up loving it.”
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