Making up the numbers in maths teacher drought
If you asked Dr Michael Easey why he decided to teach maths, he could sum up his answer in two words: Good teachers.
Back when he was a wide-eyed secondary school student, he was lucky enough to be taught by expert maths teachers with a passion for numbers and problem solving.
“They were qualified and knowledgeable and they inspired me to understand and love maths,” says Dr Easey, a maths education lecturer at Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) School of Education in Brisbane.
“If you have teachers who can help you to understand complex maths concepts and see the relevance of maths in the world, you come to love maths, too. In my case, I wanted to follow in their footsteps.”
The reality that many students in Australian high schools face today, however, is a chronic shortage of qualified maths educators. Up to three-quarters of students across years 8 to 10 are taught by teachers without a tertiary qualification in maths teaching.
In 2019, Dr Easey completed a study across three Brisbane secondary schools to explore the factors that influence maths course choice. He found that many students were taught by out-of-field rather than infield maths teachers across years 8 to 10, and that this had a significant influence on course choice for years 11 and 12.
Students taught by infield maths teachers were 22 times more likely to choose an upper-secondary maths course that involved learning difficult concepts like calculus.
The findings suggest the shortage of specialist maths teachers in schools could be part of a vicious cycle.
“The research showed that teachers have a huge impact on students and their likelihood of pursuing an academically demanding maths course beyond year 10,” says Dr Easey, a member of ACU’s Mathematics Teaching and Learning Centre.
“This has implication for maths education in Australia, as there’s not enough students going onto university with an interest in becoming maths teachers, and further research is needed to determine the extent to which teacher quality and qualifications impacts these decisions.”
That’s not to say that out-of-field teachers can’t achieve good learning outcomes with students in maths classes, Dr Easey adds.
“There are many experienced teachers trained in subjects other than maths who understand and teach maths quite well,” he says.
“Often what we find though is that out-of-field teachers may not have multiple ways of explaining concepts and methods to students to help their understanding. If a teacher can only teach a maths concept one way, that might be helpful to some students but not others. As a result, some students might not learn or understand important concepts fully.
“Trained maths teachers tend to have a variety of methods and understandings to explain a problem, and that is critical when teaching students with diverse needs.”
A positive attitude is important
There’s another problem that might contribute to the shortage of specialist maths teachers: the pervasive idea that maths is both difficult and boring.
Often such attitudes are transmitted by parents dealing with their own experiences of learning maths.
“Sometimes parents who had difficulty and experienced anxiety when learning maths at school can unwittingly affect their son or daughter’s attitude to studying maths when they say, ‘Look, you might find maths hard – I found it really hard when I was at school – so don’t worry too much if you have difficulties with it’,” Dr Easey says.
Parents can therefore play an important role with their children from an early age, by encouraging them to engage in maths learning in positive ways.
Celebrity mathematician Lily Serna, who co-hosts the popular SBS show Letters and Numbers, attributes her love of maths to the fact she was raised in a family that valued it, and was therefore sheltered from the negatibachelor ve stereotypes.
“Like the idea that it’s not cool to study maths or that girls aren’t as good at maths as boys are,” she told Vogue magazine. “I was allowed to explore my curiosity without having any stigmas attached to the subject.”
But a keen interest needs to be accompanied by positive experiences in the maths classroom.
“Students won’t necessarily remember what a teacher says, but they will remember how they made them feel,” Dr Easey says.
“Really good maths teachers can instil a sense of fun and confidence in their students and get them to realise that if they work at things, they can get better, and then the student will begin to see how fascinating maths can be.”
One teacher who achieves this is Eddie Woo, the Sydney-based mathematician and author of Woo’s Wonderful World of Maths. He holds a senior teaching position at Cherrybrook Technology High School and has a YouTube channel with almost a million subscribers.
Woo wasn’t drawn to maths at high school but chose to study it at university to help address the shortage of maths teachers in NSW. His enthusiasm for maths and teaching is convincing others that it’s a desirable profession. Take Cherrybrook student Emily Shakespear, who told the ABC that Woo’s teaching style made maths “irresistible”.
Dr Easey says teachers like Eddie Woo have a knack for explaining difficult maths concepts or problems “in an elegant way that makes them simple for people to understand”.
“Eddie is passionate about maths and he exudes that passion, and he also knows how to captivate interest in his students in a way that’s almost infectious,” he says.
“You’ve got to have the content knowledge, and obviously he does, but it’s also the pedagogical knowledge that allows you to find different ways of teaching maths to different people.
“Also, students not only need to know what to do but why they are doing it. Maths teachers who have the training, the knowledge and the passion can explain things so that kids really get it. And once they get it, they’re hooked.”
No simple solution
So how do we address the shortage of qualified maths educators in Australian high schools?
Dr Easey acknowledges there’s “no simple solution”.
“Addressing the current shortage of qualified maths teacher, especially for the future, is a very knotty issue with a lot of potential factors that need to be explored,” he says.
“Research is required to identify the extent of the shortage and then what initiative can be put in place to attract mathematically-capable people to become qualified maths teachers.”
Government initiatives also play a role in encouraging more people to take on mathematics courses, as do universities.
ACU currently offers a Bachelor of Education (Secondary)/Bachelor of Arts (Mathematics) a double degree for students who want to teach mathematics in secondary schools.
Once again, instilling confidence – and passion – can go a long way to convincing people to take on a career in teaching maths.
“When ACU students study primary maths units, they sheepishly say, ‘I’ve only done basic maths in years 11 and 12’. I reply, ‘that’s fantastic! I’m sure you have good foundations and we can work towards expanding on that.”
Dr Easey believes that now is a great time for people to enter the profession as a maths teacher.
“At ACU, we have excellent maths content and pedagogy units to develop students’ knowledge and skills to teach mathematics,” he says.
“The transformation I see in our students’ confidence and ability to teach maths effectively after completing these units is personally rewarding, and I believe they will have a great impact on the students they teach in the future.”
Dr Michael Easey is a lecturer in mathematics education. His role encompasses working with undergraduate and postgraduate students at all levels of the Australian mathematics curriculum. His doctoral study on the factors influencing high-school students in mathematics course choice is available online.
Interested in becoming a maths teacher? Explore our teaching degrees at ACU.