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What do you need to succeed as a non-specialist teacher of mathematics?

Published: Jan 26, 2018 3 min read

Stephen Lyon

Mathematics Lead

National STEM Learning Centre

Teacher in classroom

Teacher recruitment has been, and remains, a popular topic in education news. The number of applications to enter the teaching profession fell from 19,330 in 2016 to 12,820 in 2017- a drop of 33%.

What does that mean for schools and, in particular, for mathematics departments? Will there be fewer qualified mathematics teachers in the classroom?

Government figures released at the end of 2016 revealed that just over 22% of secondary mathematics teachers had no relevant post-A level qualification in mathematics.

This might sound alarming, but the figure is close to that of English (18.6%) and is lower than in subjects such as chemistry (25.1%), physics (37.3%) and geography (33.8%). However in most subjects, more than half of the teachers have a degree in a relevant subject, while only 46% of those teaching mathematics have a degree in it.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. You don’t have to have a mathematics degree to be an excellent mathematics teacher. I’ve had the privilege to work with a range of mathematics teachers from a range of different backgrounds - all of which are considered as a “non-specialist” - but many were also outstanding teachers.

What do you need to succeed as a non-specialist teacher of mathematics?

Subject knowledge

The best way to improve this is through experience. The Teacher subject specialism training programme can also help.

Many teachers starting their mathematics teaching careers are typically given a mix of key stage 3 classes and foundation GCSE groups. While it can be argued that these classes are often the ones that require a more experienced teacher, it makes sense to start with less-challenging and more familiar mathematical subject content.

Regardless of the challenge, confidence is the key factor. Carol Dweck’s growth mindsets can be just as applicable for teachers as they are for students. It’s OK not to know the answer to every question. The most interesting mathematics often comes in lessons from the questions we don’t know the answer to.

Why note access our online proportional reasoning subject knowledge course, designed specifically for teachers and educators who aren't mathematics specialists but wish to learn mathematical methods and improve their understanding and teaching of the topic.

Reasoning and problem solving

Mathematics teachers have been grappling with problem-solving long before 1982’s often-cited Cockcroft report. There are many strategies you can introduce to students to help build their resilience when grappling with a mathematics problem. It can sometimes help if you too have recently faced similar challenges with the question at hand. These problem-solving resources provide a good starting point of rich questions to get stuck into.

Support from other teachers

The colleagues in your department are the best resources you could ask for. Ask questions, observe, steal resources and pinch ideas. Twitter can be a great place to find new ideas and support from others in a similar position. Time with other non-specialist mathematics teachers can also be worth its weight in gold.

Here at STEM Learning, we are proud to offer support to non-specialist teachers. Our ENTHUSE-supported residential CPD Building confidence as a non-specialist mathematics teacher explores what you need to succeed as a non-specialist teacher of mathematics. We look at what makes good mathematics teaching, develop teaching strategies for topics such as fractions, algebra, sequences and probability, explore manipulatives and discover simple ways to adapt great mathematics resources.

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