As part of CBeebies Grown-ups Maths Month, we chatted to CBeebies dad Michael - better known as Mr Steer, the inspirational maths teacher from Channel Four’s Educating Yorkshire – to find out why he loves maths, and why it’s so important for little ones to have a positive experience of Numeracy right from the very beginning…
Hello Michael, can you tell us a little bit about the role that maths has played in your life and career?
As a child, I never had any desire at all to be a maths teacher. If anything, I had an aversion to the idea and tried my hand at several different jobs before coming to teaching. I worked in shops, warehouses, and a hospital and spent a miserable few years in banking. All of the roles I did were distinctly different, but the link between them was the clear advantage I gained by having good literacy and numeracy skills - both were needed every day without fail, regardless of the task in hand.
As someone in their 13th year as a maths teacher, I suppose it’s no great surprise to hear that maths and numeracy play a huge part in my day to day life. However, as a Deputy Headteacher in charge of the curriculum and student progress, less and less of my time is spent in the classroom and much more of it on other duties. One of my roles is to create the school curriculum and timetable which has a massive mathematical element to it – ensuring that students get the right amount of time in each subject, that specialist teachers are available to teach, and that classroom spaces and resources are used to their full potential. Luckily for me, this plays to my strengths, but there are thousands of schools up and down the country where the person doing the job won’t be maths specialists but will need to use the same skills.
Where do you think your love of maths comes from? Were you inspired by numbers as a child?
It’s very difficult to pinpoint where my love of maths comes from, it’s just something that has always been there. According to my mum, the first thing I used my newly acquired powers of speech for was to enquire about numbers – pointing at house numbers on doors as we walked past them and shouting ‘what dat?’, to which she would dutifully reply ‘84’ and continue three more steps down the road until I piped up again ‘what dat?’ and she would inform me that we were passing number 82 . This even number countdown would continue all the way down the street until we reached our local shop. On the way back we would walk up the other side of the road. She used to tell me that she did this to introduce me to the odd numbers too, although she now claims it was just a desperate attempt to hang on to her sanity!
What did you parents make of your love of maths?
I think my parents were (and have remained) a little baffled by my love of maths, it’s certainly not a genetic thing! That’s not to say that they aren’t numerate and intelligent people, it’s just that my family had never previously trodden an academic path.
However, the way they nurtured my ability in the subject is absolutely pivotal to the fact that I am in the career I find myself in as an adult. I can clearly remember my mum sitting down with my older sister to teach her the times tables and I, as an inquisitive 4 year old, trotted over to join in. I was told that this was something for older children and that I could go and play if I wanted to, but I was instantly hooked. From that moment on, I was regularly pushed and challenged in maths and problem solving by both my parents, but the key thing is I was never forced, it was always made fun and enjoyable, which is the key to learning anything. If a child is engaged and enjoying themselves, the learning comes much easier.
Why do you think it’s important for grown-ups to pass on a positive attitude towards numeracy to their children?
Inevitably, the vast majority of a child’s opinions come
directly from their parents and other adult role models, so if they are
surrounded by negativity towards maths and numeracy they are very likely to
feel the same way about it. Considering that maths will play a major role
throughout their school life (culminating in
a mandatory qualification that will be used as a benchmark for any future
education and employment) then a hardwired dislike (or even fear) of the
subject is perhaps the least helpful thing they can have.
I’ve always found it very strange that it’s not only acceptable, but almost a badge of honour, for people to proclaim that they hate or can’t do maths. No-one would ever adopt a boastful attitude about the fact that they couldn’t read, yet numeracy ranks alongside literacy as a key skill that we all need throughout our lives.
Obviously you’re used to working with much older children, but what can CBeebies parents do to ensure that their little ones get the best start in maths?
As I’ve already mentioned, maths is a subject with a bad reputation. In many ways, it is the Bogeyman on the school timetable! This reputation (which I obviously feel is ill-deserved) wasn’t gained overnight, it has built up over time. People aren’t born hating maths, but the attitude is often passed down to them.
The best thing any parent can do to give their little one a head start in maths is to make it fun. Play games that involve numbers and counting, let their first impressions of numbers be associated with enjoyment.
As they get a little older and start encountering numbers at school, take an interest in a positive way – talk to them about what they are learning and reinforce how well they are doing. I know it can be difficult if you have had a bad experience with maths yourself, but a positive attitude to the subject is crucial if your child is going to succeed. If you feel that your demons around the subject are just too powerful and you’re concerned that you won’t be able to help your child or will give them bad advice, then I would urge you to contact their school and talk to their teachers who will be only too happy to offer you guidance and support in this area.
As a dad, do you watch things like Numtums with your 4 year old? What other number-based activities do you do together?
My daughter absolutely loves CBeebies, mainly because she becomes so engaged with the presenters and characters. That’s why programmes like Numtums are an absolute godsend to me, because they get her interested, they initiate conversations about numbers and provide opportunities to further engage her. Aside from the obvious activities such as talking to her about the Numeracy work she has done at school, I try to stay away from forcing numbers and maths on her, as that would take away the enjoyment aspect of it all. Instead, I just look for the everyday occurrences of numbers and maths in the activities that we do together. She loves to draw and paint, so we talk about the shapes she is drawing; what their names are and how she can recognise them.
When we are baking together, she’s always in charge of measuring out the ingredients and setting the timer. She is also just getting into games like Snakes and Ladders which is great for introducing the idea of adding numbers. As for the bathtime game ‘Monsters Inc. Diving Spectacular’ (her name) I won’t bore you with the full rules, but it involves separating toys out in to teams of 2, 3 or 4 which has been a brilliant starter point for looking at times tables. Numbers and maths are always present in everything we do, and it’s a very good start to point them out to children and make them part of the fun you are having together.
You go to great lengths to make sure that your students achieve their potential in maths – why is it such an important subject in terms of preparing them for later life?
The obvious answer is that there is a huge amount of value placed by colleges, universities and employers on attaining a grade C or above in a maths GCSE. Even if the course or role you’re applying for appears to be largely unrelated to maths, it is still seen as an essential criteria for acceptance. In that respect I’m absolutely dedicated in pushing my students to achieve their potential, because it opens doors for them and leads on to other opportunities that they might otherwise miss out on. I often use my own sister as an example – she never attained a grade C at school and is now, some 23 years later, having to go back and re-take her GCSE in order to progress to the next level at work.
Aside from the importance of the grade C at GCSE, I also believe it’s vitally important that students leave school numerate enough to deal confidently with the level of maths that everyday life throws up. The prime example of this would be in the managing of their own finances; sticking to a budget, ensuring that they don’t live beyond their means, stopping them from falling foul of pay day loan companies and so on.
How do you think your own life would be different if you hadn’t been bitten by the number bug early on? Are you surprised by where maths has taken you?
I actually tried to run away from numbers and maths for a while to pursue my dream of writing or working in the theatre, but I was drawn back like a moth to a flame shortly before I went to university.
Teaching was the last thing I wanted to do when I left education, and I actually ended up in the profession after trying other careers and not feeling comfortable with them. I was completely surprised that I fell in love with teaching as quickly as I did, and although you don’t have to be a stunning mathematician to teach all subjects, I’ve found that my ability with maths has been essential in securing a senior post in my field and has opened up opportunities I never thought possible, to the point where I’m one step away from a headship and all the responsibility that comes with it. I am in the rarefied position of absolutely loving my job and relishing the challenges it throws up and will continue to throw up and I feel incredibly blessed that everything is a direct result of my parents seeing something in me, nurturing me and supporting me to ensure I had the best opportunities in life. Strange to think that it all started from shouting house numbers out of a pram…