Cabbage, and other subject specialisms

After my maths class today, I found myself reflecting on what was wrong with the the lesson. There were a couple of what I think of as technical issues: some missed opportunities to use assessment feedback as a learning tool, mainly, but overall that wasn’t what was lacking. I get the same after I teach ICT as well: a sense that something is missing. I’ve thought about it more, and tried to apply the technical answer: tighter planning, clear, differentiated outcomes, interesting (perhaps) contexts, useful concepts and ideas, demonstrating a link to summative assessment, the whole shebang.

None of it works.

I think maths is really important. It is. As is ICT. These are both skills which are of profound usefulness to individuals in the 21st century: I am not dissing the subjects, I am not down on the subjects. Let me be absolutely clear: they are good, useful things to know, and are interesting in and of themselves. I like techy stuff, I like being able to solve IT based problems, pick up new things, and god I love a good gadget. I like maths stuff, with geometry and algebra and pi, and rely on maths on daily basis.

The students are important. They have a lot to gain from gaining these initial qualifications in these subjects: they may be going on to do further qualifications in those subjects, maybe even follow careers in those subjects. Even if they don’t plan to do anything with them, these are things which will benefit them in a whole number of ways. My job is to support and develop these people, help them to grow and learn and all sorts of things.

And yet. Yet. Yet yet yet.

Something isn’t quite right, still. These all considerations which my conscious mind is aware of: arguments for my head, if you like. Much like when I eat cabbage. My head knows that it’s a cheap and healthy foodstuff, full of handy vitamins and things. Cabbage is good. Nevertheless, I don’t like it. I’ll eat it, out of politeness, say, or if it’s combined with other things, (coleslaw, yes, sauerkraut, never), or because there is nothing else to eat. However, in the world of educationally metaphorical brassicas I’m more of a broccoli person; maybe kale.

Maths is much the same, I’m sorry to say. It’s OK, it’s useful, it’s necessary for lots of other things: things like computers, bike frame geometry, baking, medicine, probably most science. Maths makes the world go round. No disagreement from me: I accept that, but that’s not going to make me like it. Sorry, an’ all, but I just don’t care about it, on some deep unconscious level. On that same level, I don’t really care about ICT, but at least I find that mildly diverting.

Perhaps I have no care left over – perhaps I use it all up on English. You see, I really really like English. I enjoy it on a technical level, a social and emotional level, and on a literary level: when it comes to English I like it all ways. Grammar is cool, even when it’s dried up and packaged in a crappy school SPaG test (although I can’t think of a faster and more efficient way to put children off grammar, which would appear to be the point). I like the subjectivity of it: how I can begin a single clause sentence with a conjunction quite happily, but put an adjective after my noun and I’ll have a bit of a moment (unless, of course, the adjective is “galore”). I am fascinated by vocabulary: note that is fascinated “by” but interested “in”. And fish and chips eaten with salt and pepper using a knife and fork, never chips and fish, and only occasionally pepper and salt, and a fork and knife. I particularly like the richness of the vocabulary: the way that we can express the concept of “forward ambulatory movement” as walk, wander, toddle, stagger, limp, stride, march, and a whole bunch of other words). Phonology is intriguing (go on, finish an affirmative statement with a high tone and watch people squirm as they wait for you to say something else). All of this is simply awesome (as opposed to awful) and terrific (as opposed to terrible).

Unlike the some of the more rabid mathematicians out there who can sometimes get a bit over-excited about the importance of maths, I understand that you may not feel this same love for my subject. It’s just me, and my thing. I recognise that students also may not give two hoots about some of this but the fact that I absolutely do makes it much much easier for me to try to enthuse them about it. Maths just doesn’t work for me, and, as I’ve said before, I think, neither does ICT. Not really. Does it count that I teach these subjects to ESOL students? Not really. Yes, there may be lots of language involved, but at the core of it there is the subject itself. But all of this makes it a challenge for me to teach those things. If I care not at all, or only a little for those subjects then where is the enthusiasm for the subject to pass onto the students? I’m not socially motivated enough for that to carry me through, I’m afraid.

It’s telling, perhaps, that despite maths & ICT teaching collectively forming almost half of my teaching week for the last couple of years, I rarely blog about it. I’m not, and I don’t think I ever will be, a good maths or ICT teacher: certainly I will never achieve outstanding in that subject. I’m ok at it, because I have some technical teaching knowledge, but that’s all I can ever hope to achieve, perhaps even all I want to achieve. I don’t care enough about maths or ICT to want to become better at teaching those things. This absence of desire to improve is worrying perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. It’s not that I don’t want to become a better teacher: I just want to become a better ESOL teacher.

And I’m definitely OK with that.


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