You don’t know what you don’t know. Is a saying we’ve probably heard and maybe even said. But it is true. I knew nothing outside secondary GCSE maths when I trained to teach, and had I known more I would have been a better teacher, for sure.
My knowledge of the skills required to have strong ordinality (putting numbers in order) and cardinality (knowing 5 is the same as five dots) was weak when I started teaching. When I became a parent, it became important to me to know more about these concepts and the best ways to teach them at home. As my child began school, I learned more from their teacher too. I never thought that teaching ordinality or cardinality wasn’t important, I just didn’t know enough about it. I think we can learn so much from other age phases different from the ones we teach. When I began supporting functional skills teachers in FE, all the things that I had learned as a parent became useful to share with colleagues.
This isn’t a criticism of my PGCE. I felt that my tuition fees gave value for the secondary maths teaching I was prepared for. But in my classroom, I encountered Siobhan (not her real name). Siobhan was bottom set year 10 and I was told that all my efforts were to be to help 100% of years 10 and 11 achieve grade G. If you imagine a ‘whack a mole’ game of getting students to sit exams for the full period and attempt questions, you have a close idea of what my role was. I loved it, I loved the personality of bottom set. I loved unlocking the maths that connected with them. We once did 6 weeks on two way tables because 10Y5 loved them so much!
Yet Siobhan struggled. Nothing that I tried could engage her. We did ratio through baking. We did coordinate geometry on the playground with chalks. We did a fundraiser car wash for decimal and money addition, plus a never ending supply of quizzes and ‘fun’ maths tasks in the classroom.
Siobhan was cared for by a family member. They openly told me that they were ‘rubbish’ at maths, that they were frustrated that they had no maths qualifications and that they expected Siobhan to be the same and not achieve her target E. Had I known more about FE and the local offer of colleges to support adults to re-engage with short courses on numeracy all the way through to resitting GCSEs I would have been able to direct this carer there. Perhaps we could have even hosted a local college on site to support our carers who struggled with maths? Truth is, I didn’t know much outside what I was trained for, secondary maths.
One day there was an incident and I sent for on call. The head arrived and removed Siobhan. There were other incidents with other staff and the head handed Siobhan a lengthy exclusion which was followed by a series of unsuccessful managed moves.
Fast forward five years and I was working in a coaching role in FE and I went to visit our SEND provision for 19+. I went to observe a new teacher in a class helping young people learn how to live independently. I want to just recognise that these provisions exist and how wonderful it is that they do. In the observees class was Siobhan, she was engaged and learning. I was floored. I caught up with the manager after the observation to ask about Siobhan. Siobhan now had an EHCP in place until the age of 25. Siobhan was living in care but she was to live on her own soon and they believed she would be ready.
I left the SEND provision with a million thoughts. How significant was my part in all of this? Siobhan didn’t have an EHCP when I taught her. Yet why didn’t I do more? Truthfully, my mainstream experience meant that I didn’t know how to best support a range of needs. If I’m honest the school didn’t either. My PGCE covered differentiation for students in mainstream with additional needs but, on reflection, I think Siobhan probably needed specialist support before I became her year 10 maths teacher.
Truth is, we don’t know what we don’t know. If we don’t know how wonderful the work our primary and FE colleagues are doing, we won’t learn and grow as teachers. If we don’t know what our wonderful FE provisions are offering, we won’t be able to signpost carers or students to the range of support available either. I don’t think I have ever seen a teacher teach and not learned something. I wish I had seen more teachers from outside my secondary setting sooner.