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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
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Constructive Steps to Solve the Mathematics Teacher Shortage

John Gough
John Gough has been a teacher-educator for many years, specialising in mathematics education. He is based at the Centre for Studies in Mathematics, Science and Environmental Education, Deakin University. Email: jugh@deakin.edu.au

Across Australia, the population of secondary mathematics teachers is desperately small. In 1998, Swedosh noted 'about 50% of all Year 7 and 8 mathematics classes are taught by individuals who have never studied a single mathematics subject at tertiary level!' (1998 p.10).

The few trained mathematics teachers who are now working in schools are aging. Worse yet, the number of education institutions that train pre-service mathematics teachers is decreasing, and the number of prospective student-teachers enrolling in mathematics teacher-training is also dwindling.

Many factors combine to deprive classrooms of skilled mathematics teachers, including:

  • the rise of better paid jobs using mathematical skills in computer-based work
  • the massive expansion of subject choices at the end of secondary and in post-secondary schooling, including a major emphasis on 'business'
  • the separation of the 'Ministry of Education' (or the 'Education Department') from the former teachers' colleges
  • the loss of student-teacher studentships which encouraged Year 12 students to begin a teaching career
  • the political shift to economic rationalism and a corporatised capitalist model of schooling, where the 'goal' of modern education is to maximise profits by minimising costs, such as teacher salaries and long-term institutional and social 'capital investment' in training of current staff and beginning teachers
  • the public view that computers can do all the mathematics we ever need
  • the widespread antagonism between youth culture (and subculture) and the school-valuing adult world, which results in classroom problems and teacher burnout, and a vicious circle of curriculum distortion, 'dumbing down' and dilution
  • the push to pre-retirement retrenchments, and the temptation of early retirements
  • the move to shift the science curriculum to less mathematically based curriculum areas (at school levels) such as environmental science
  • the continual upheaval in curriculum and assessment, that is often disheartening and confusing since the central issues of school mathematics remain largely unchanged.
What can mathematics teachers themselves do about the chronic shortage of trained secondary mathematics teachers? Neither school leaders, nor individual teachers, can do much about these broad trends. They can, however, encourage students to become mathematics teachers.

Every time a student asks, 'What is this mathematics for, and when will I ever use it?', mathematics teachers respond by speaking inspiringly about using mathematics for science, medicine, engineering, computing, and so on. However, as I have argued elsewhere (Gough 1998 pp.12-16), 'relevance', especially in the vague and hypothetical future - jam tomorrow, but never jam today - is not an easy way to motivate our students, even presuming that students can imagine what engineering, medicine, business accounting, economics, or other mathematics-using careers might be like.

Amazingly (it certainly amazes me), it seems that mathematics teachers rarely point out what is the simple truth for them: 'I use this mathematics every day!'

In their own careers as mathematics teachers, they use post-numeracy, secondary mathematics all the time when they are teaching it. Moreover, they like the subject; it intrigues them, stimulates them, and satisfies them greatly when they work with it and see their students succeeding, and, in the best cases, enjoying it the way they, the teachers, do. This professional satisfaction provides the career-motivating passion that might inspire current students to become future teachers.

When schools have guest-speakers and careers nights, few of the carefully selected, high-status speakers are teachers themselves, and few extol the benefits of becoming a teacher. Don't let another Careers Night pass without ensuring that a mathematics teacher is there to wave the flag and call for volunteers!

Finally, why not develop a user-friendly, fool-proof Mathematics Teaching Careers Information Kit? It could be used by mathematics teachers, and others in schools, at careers evenings and other venues where potential careers are canvassed. The kit can contain advice about tertiary study and training that will be needed for any mathematics related career choice.

Although the main audience for such a marketing drive is in Years 10 and 11, where students make decisions about their final years of study and post-school options, the message is also relevant to students as far down in the system as Year 7, or even primary school. Importantly, it is in the early secondary years that the basis for robust mathematics skills - positive attitude to mathematics, and confidence and enjoyment of study - are established, when initial primary-based understanding of 'arithmetic', 'measurement' and 'sums' are challenged by the bugaboos of algebra and trigonometry.

Yes, the challenges of secondary teaching can be extreme. But the rewards - the satisfaction when students 'get it' and, better still, 'like it' (and many can and do!) - are enormous. When I asked a young student-teacher why she was choosing to work in teaching, and why in mathematics, she answered: 'Because I love maths, and I'm pretty good at it, and I like people, and I like working with them'. (Gough 1999) A wonderful reply, indeed.




References and Further Reading
Gough, J. (1998). 'Maths? Huh! - When will I ever use it? - Some reflections', Australian Mathematics Teacher [AMT], vol. 54, no. 4, pp. 12-16.
Gough, J. (1999). 'Teaching for Our Future: Teaching Mathematics for Mathematics Teaching!' Vinculum, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 16-19.
Gough, J. (2003). 'Editorial: What can mathematics teachers themselves do about the chronic shortage of trained Secondary mathematics teachers?', Vinculum, vol. 40, no. 4, p. 3.
Swedosh, P. (1997). 'Down From the Ivory Tower: Save Our Subject (S.O.S.)', Vinculum, vol. 34, no. 4, p. 24.
Swedosh, P. (1998). 'We Are Travelling Up That Famously Malodorous Creek: We Desperately Need a Paddle!', Vinculum, vol. 35, no. 4, p. 10.



Key Learning Areas

Mathematics

Subject Headings

Computers in society
Curriculum planning
Education philosophy
Education policy
Mathematics teaching
Teachers' employment
Teaching profession