I blogged the other day about my self-revelation that Betsy has probably been suffering from maths anxiety for her whole school life; I did make a basic parent error of not checking with her before posting and I’m not sure that she is completely ok with me, not only diagnosing her, but telling the world. I did try to reassure her that I’d pointed out she had been successful (she passed her IGCSE), and that as she was my only consistent blog reader anyway, (woe is me), no one else would probably see it, but I am still not sure it was my smartest move! A wise ‘new blogger’ would learn from this and move to less personal topics to explore. Wisdom has never been my strong point though! I figure that having raised the problem of maths anxiety (though that was actually Jenni Murray’s fault for podcasting about it) I now need to focus on exploring the solutions.
I’ve got a feeling this may be a further moment of shame as my quick fix to maths anxiety is a little controversial. Let me justify myself before I confess all ...
Over the years I’ve tried to help both my girls with their ‘home-learning’ (a.k.a. homework to anyone who has been on this earth longer than millennial status). I’ve built, I mean supervised ... no I mean built, models from cardboard, completed extravagent rubric-led projects, filled in learning-scrapbooks, created posters, written book reviews galore; I’ve taken the class teddy on ridiculous trips out, simply so that I can compete with the tiger mums in the ‘what teddy did when he came to stay book’ and coloured and cut until I can’t take any more!
Why didn’t I leave the kids to it? I guess I wanted them to hold their own and even excel in their class presentations and achieve the kudos of a job well done. I could help, so I did. (I didn’t really do the work for them – well not all of it!) and we bonded and actually had fun in the process. That’s the key thing, it was fun and not anxiety laden. But when it comes to maths, I cannot keep the anxiety out of the helping part. Apart from anything else my own maths skills are not up to it! Maybe once upon a time, I could assist with times-tables, division and multiplication, but even there the working-out methods were not ones I was familiar with. These days, the functions and quadratic equations, that are causing concern, are way beyond my understanding! Any attempt to help with the calculation process is guaranteed to lead to stress, conflict, tears and tantrums and the maths anxiety I am desperate to avoid. That’s my justification for what follows…
My solution is to enrol extra help. This can be either done from within the system or externally. I’ve opted primarily for external help, hence the moment of shame. I have enlisted a … TUTOR.
That might not seem so radical or such a terrible deed, but teachers (even an ex-one like me) advocating for a tutor, especially a Maths one, is a big no-no. We teachers believe that kids do not need tutors and that we give them enough support and challenge to enable the students to do well. We get very irritated at 'tiger parents' who insist on extra tutoring, especially when kids turn up with home-learning of a higher standard than we know they are capable of alone. We know, that in Asia, sometimes tutors are enlisted, not for those students who really need extra help, but for those whose parents want them to be 'even better' than the 'excellent' standard that they are already at. Quite frankly, we don't approve!
Yet, here I am traitor to my cause!
Betsy has a fabulous tutor called John Tranter, (founder and content creator of www.transum.org. He teaches Betsy once a week and can do all the things that I can’t and be all the things I fail to be. He is kind, encouraging, patient, can and plans tailored provision that can complement the excellent class teaching she receives. As an ex-teacher himself, he really understands the stumbling blocks preventing learning and knows how to overcome them and most significantly can calmly teach the skills for doing this. He has inside out knowledge of the exam curriculum and can devote time to creating a personalized learning programme for Betsy. Having a tutor works.
If this sounds like an ode to John, it kind of is, but it isn’t in any way denigrating the role of the teacher. As I mentioned, the other way to enrol help, especially if cash is not available, is from within the system. Regardless of whether you enlist the extra help of a tutor it is imperative, if you have a child with maths anxiety, to take the time to get to know your child's Maths’ teacher and share with them strategies that you know will and won't work for your child. If s/he is shy then forcing them to solve problems at the board in front of the class obviously won’t reduce their anxiety; if the teacher thinks that your child is disengaged because they are lazy or don’t care, when you know otherwise, then it is worth sharing this with them. In my experience there are very few children (actually I can’t think of any) who do not want to do well. Where they give the appearance of that, with a supportive teacher you can get to the root of the problem. I reckon, now I know the prevalence of the existence of maths anxiety, creating a great relationship with the teacher becomes imperative. And, whilst I’m on my soap box, I’d say do trust the teacher unless your instinct really says not to. Don’t view having a tutor as a failure on their or your child’s part, or your own and don’t worry about whether they are in an upper or lower set. After all it’s only a number, they need to be where the content is appropriately pitched. So, in brief, let the teacher and the tutor take the strain.
Whilst, then as a teacher I am probably opposed to tutoring, (surely the kids have enough schooling during the day and why spend money on a tutor when they have lessons all day at school type arguments), as a mum I am comfortable with my stance. (My shame is no more, but as you've read my self-contradictions continue.) If, like me, you have a child with maths anxiety then enlisting a kind and caring tutor (not a tyrant) is a great way forward. The tutor not only helps teach the actual maths, supporting the great classroom learning, s/he reduces stress levels of the whole family. I don’t think there is any point telling your kids that maths is easy when they don’t find it so, but choosing a well qualified tutor who can relate to your child is about as reassuring a thing as I can think of to do. Betsy knows first hand that John helped her to get her IGCSE and has confidence in his help for IB. That’s all I can ask for. For me, that’s worth every penny!
One last postscript, about my angst about whether maths anxiety needs an apostrophe. The issue is resolved and it doesn’t. Maths is the adjective and anxiety is the noun, therefore we are good to go without it. If using maths as an adjectivethen a lower case m is needed, but if as a noun a capital M is needed. Guess who told me that? It wasn't a language specialist. This does make my punctuation through my last blog post leave a bit to be desired, but the grammar police haven’t arrested me just yet!
I was listening to Jenni Murray exploring Maths' anxiety in a parenting podcast yesterday on Woman's hour along with Lucy Rycroft-Smith, a research officer at Cambridge University's Faculty of Education and its centre for Neuroscience. It was stated that on the podcast one in ten students between 8 and 13 years old suffer from Maths' Anxiety. This can lead to a feeling of rage, despair and affect the very essence of a child's sense of self-worth. Jenni informed me, via the airwaves, that she will no longer feel guilty for saying that she hated Maths at school, the message being that she had an unacknowledged anxiety that had affected her ability to do well.
It was an interesting topic for me to listen to, especially as Maths is not my youngest daughter Betsy's favourite subject. (Understatement!) I got thinking about her own educational experience and how her attitude towards Maths has been affected by her family, friends and teachers. Actually that's not quite true, let's be honest, it mainly got me thinking about how I had affected her attitude towards Maths.
I've never labelled Betsy as having Maths' anxiety, but thinking about it, that is exactly what she has been experiencing all these years. Not to make it all about me, but it's actually myself I'd have labelled as having Maths' anxiety - anxiety that she would pass her blooming Maths' tests, They started unbelievably at the end of KS1 and are on-going with IB Maths just around the corner!
The good news is that, so far, Betsy has been successful, but it hasn't been plain sailing. My anxiety has led me to micro-managing her Maths' learning, thus probably exacerbating her original anxiety. Looking back, I'm wondering whether all those extra word-based Maths' problems I foisted on her, plus requests to the teachers for extra homework questions to practise were that helpful. Also, pitching them at the level she was struggling at was probably pretty foolish and I am not so sure that comments such as, "Come on Betsy, it's not that difficult if you really concentrate," were constructive!
If I could change things, I'd probably skip the extra practice full stop. Tears and arguments do not a positive attitude create! Did it really matter that Betsy was in a lower set for Maths? Well I want to say, of course it didn't, but I'm not sure it is that simple. Of course, children need to be in a set where learning is pitched appropriately and where they can be happy and confident and work to the best of their ability; (blah blah blah); a school isn't, though, a utopia of good will. My hunch is that children's pecking order and ranking amongst themselves, not only definitely exists, but can actually be partially determined by what 'set' they are in for different subjects. In a school where it is 'cool' to be 'smart', whether or not you are seen as being smart at Maths can be quite significant and thus consequently, to be low in the rankings, can in itself create Maths' anxiety.
Putting peer and self-induced student anxiety aside for the moment, even when the kids were little I was very aware that eventually they would be examined externally using a traditional timed examination structure. Until this changes teachers and parents have the dicohtemy of having to teach within a system that fundamentally contradicts the values of education that many educators (and parents) believe in. Uniform and de-personalized tests are used for testing in an impersonal manner but one which will determine university placements. What room does this leave for nurturing individual strengths and aspirations in a subject like Maths?
I imagine that being a Maths' teacher might sometimes feels a bit like being Jekyll and Hyde. On the one hand Jekyll is nurturing, caring, helping the individual, but on the other hand Hyde, due to circumstances beyond control, is throwing the student to a pack of assessment-hungry lions! This goes back further than Secondary school. I think Betsy's Maths anxiety was formed during the time that she (and I) perceived the need to obtain good Maths SATS results, which was for forefront in UK educational practice during her Upper Primary years. I also wonder if there is a link to the fact that all the touchy-feely stuff I so valued disappeared from reporting systems at about the same time. There was a lot of focus on the specifics of what she had and hadn't mastered and little focus on 'her'. Perhaps the current interest in wellbeing will change this.
In The Anti-Anxiety Curriculum: Combating Math Anxiety in the Classroom, Eugene Geist talks a lot about other factors leading to anxiety in Mathematics, particularly amongst girls, and how classroom environments can exacerbate it. If you're interested you can read the whole paper here, My take away from reading the paper is that, for various reasons, girls are likely to feel more doubtful about the accuracy of their responses than boys and thus lose their Maths edge and that traditional test situations can exacerbate this. Who knows, but it makes sense. I can see now in hindsight, that for Betsy, the fact that she had a ‘specialist’ Maths' teacher, rather than her regular class teacher, would have exacerbated her anxiety and make her less likely to contribute. This wouldn't have been addressed as at Parents' evening as progress in Maths was reported not by the Maths teacher, but second hand by the main teacher, so the nuances of stress and feelings of inadequacy in the classroom were not explored.
On the plus side, the anecdotes in Jenni Murray's podcast of child-shaming and detention-giving do fortunately seem to be a thing of the past. If there is a problem in education causing Maths' anxiety it is the 'bigger educational system at fault, and not, in my experience, individual teachers. Whether SATS, IGCSEs or IB, it is impossible to escape the fact that having to comply with traditional examination structures and timed systems will likely have exacerbated, rather than relieved Betsy’s (and others) and my anxiety.
Anyway, hindsight is a wonderful thing and whilst long term, knowing the causes for something can prevent its re-occurence, right now, for Betsy, who is about to sit her IB Maths exams, managing that anxiety is what matters. Back in Year 6 Mrs Parker taught Betsy Maths . She advised Bets to not panic and to believe in herself; so far this has been good advice. I once, with a colleague, Lorraine Illing wrote a whole book (illustrated very wittily by Duangport Turongratanachai) managing exam stress and other such IB issues. It's available at Amazon and all good book shops, (!) and called A Parents' Survival Guide to the IB. Perhaps I wil take a peep and see if we came up with any gems of wisdom for my next blog post on managing Maths' anxiety, but in the meantime, thanks Mrs Parker, you were a fab teacher.
One last postscript, whilst Maths' Anxiety has been forefront in my thoughts whilst writing this blog, a bigger anxiety has kept creeping in - does Maths' Anxiety need an apostrophe or not? Grammar police, please help me.
It's become a bit of a family tradition that when our family is all here together Saint Mick treats us to a delicious brunch. Nice. The splendid Sheraton Grande on Sukhumvit in Bangkok is our preferred eatery, but I have to say, though, that of late the experience is starting to feel just a little surreal. Whilst we are inside the hotel, living the high life, enjoying the jazz and sampling the delights, the sky-train is literally a stones throw away outside and you don't need to look very far to see plenty of poverty.
I haven't read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale for a long time, but I'm sure there is a scene in it of the 'haves' living their privileged, five star lifestyle - enjoying forbidden fruits in a hidden location, whilst everyone else, the 'have not's, go without. The brunch feels just a little bit like that. I felt the same the first time I went in a Business Class Lounge in an airport. Sectioned off, exclusive and completely undeserving - I guess the metaphor can extend infinitum.
Typical me that I can't even enjoy a brunch without a healthy dose of guilt and angst. Yet, full of contradictions as ever, I still tuck in. At the Sheraton the desserts are exquisite, the lattes and teas scrumptious and the elephant (someone dressed up in an elephant suit for the kids) as entertaining as ever, I wonder how many incarnations of the elephant we've encountered over the last dozen years or so? Brunches are definitely a treat which I really look forward to, yet despite this, I'm not sure if they are my favourite style of dining,
To brunch or not?
One good thing about brunches is that diners can choose their own favourite dishes. In our family, the vegetarians, Mick and Annie, favour the curry corner and have a penchant for the paneer and lentil curry. Betsy, on the other hand, can't get enough of the pork ribs and bypasses the salads completely; whereas I'm always drawn towards the lamb in all it's forms, chops, curry, salads. Yum. That's not to say the vast amount of meat on display doesn't make me feel terribly guilty about a) waste generally b) the future of our climate, and c) the poor little lambs' short lives. Yep, I know I still eat them! Unlike at some other restaurants, a good brunch means that there are always ample choices for vegetarians and vegans. In addition, dishes can also be cooked on request. This is a good thing, but countered by the fois gras served alongside the vegan choices. This is a very bad thing.
I've noticed that there are two types of diners at posh brunches. There are the genuine well-heeled foodies who savour the top quality dishes, and then the rest of us who cram in as much of the good stuff as we can! Brunches are relatively expensive and can feel a 'waste of money', especially if opting to consume a sensible and healthy amount (don't worry this never happens.) The counter argument is that they afford opportunities to tantalise the tastebuds with exciting foods outside of our family's regular dining experience. Lobster, salmon smoked in coconut, roast dinner with three choices of meat and twenty plus dessert choices do not typify our Wednesday evening meal.
As brunches are 'eat as much as you like' it is possible to get good 'quantity' value. This can be a bit too self-revealing for comfort as the fact that I see the 'array of choice' as a reason to try absolutely everything, rather shows my lack of sophistication.
Lasting between about 11.30 am to 3.00 pm, plus travel time, brunches can take up the whole day. This can be a positive and provide much needed family time in which stimulating and heart-warming family chat can occur, or... it can be problematic when study, swimming and blog writing are still on the day's agenda.
Back in the days when I drank alcohol the concept of having 'free-flow' booze symbolized perfectly the contradictions of brunching. The continual top ups were much desired, made group dining flow with a flourish, and muted the 'are brunches value for money?' question. However, the rest of the day was often wasted as extended afternoon naps (sleeping it off) were the norm. It's not without an element of shame that I have noticed that during the last 18 months of teetotalism we have enjoyed our feasting in the main 'living room', rather than getting gently sozzled in the posher, more private, but 'away from prying eyes' Rossini quarter.
I think the truth is that I have a 'good angel' and a 'bad angel' perched on my shoulder. Currently, my 'good angel' is contemplating (not doing, but contemplating) joining the ranks of the veggies, and doing other, undecidedly, good worthy and charitable things (!), whilst my bad angel is reflecting how the meat was to die for. I'm wishing I squeezed another lamp chop in and a bit more beef! I don't think my good angel is ready to graduate any time soon!
I've just returned home from dropping my youngest daughter, Betsy, and husband off at school. I only went so that I could borrow the car; it was nothing to do with it being Betsy's last official day in Year 13. I definitely didn't take them because I wanted to see her heading off down the school corridor one last time as an official school student - that would be silly.
Betsy clearly read too much into my lingering hug and last school photo shoot moments with her 'Oh mum, I didn't expect you to be this nostalgic' comment. Waving her off didn't at all remind me of her first day in Nursery, where I would stand round the corner peeping to make sure that she was ok and was getting her fair share of play on the playground tricycles.
There have been loads of 'it's the last time you'll do this at school' moments lately. One was just yesterday when we watched Betsy sing a duet and take part in her last school choir performance. She was MC so it was also Betsy's last time speaking in front of students, teachers and parents. My only involvement was to watch, take too much video footage on my phone and irritate her by giving her the over-the-years-oft-repeated public speaking advice. I'm sure you'll appreciate I wasn't at all nervous for her! I'd no need to be, she was great.
Our school has a tradition that the students' pre-leaving celebrations includes dress-up-days. This is both a first and last moment for Betsy. We've had lots of dress-ups, but never on the last day of school. This year's themes are 'childhood aspirations' and 'fictional characters'. Betsy's childhood aspiration was to be an air stewardess, so yesterday she donned the full Thai Airways air hostess costume, and today for fictional characters she has chosen to be young Donna from Mamma Mia 2. As I watched Betsy unravel her hair plaits she'd slept in, to emulate Donna's style, fasten on her hippy earrings and clip on her 'tool belt' to her dungarees I reflected that 'helping' her get ready for a dress up day was another 'last time' moment. Actually all I had to do was fork out for a pair of dungarees, but you get the idea..
All these 'last time' moments really are significant. Old person comment alert - it's not like in my day when one day you went to school and then the next day you didn't. This is a good thing as I think proper closure is important for everyone.
For me it's impossible to not feel at least a bit emotional as I watch Betsy, in effect, say goodbye to childhood. (Gosh, that sounded dramatic!) As a mum it's like finishing one very long shift of the most important job you're ever likely to have, knowing that whilst you're not being fired, you won't be called in for as much overtime in the future. Or, it's like running the first leg of a relay knowing that your main role for remainder of the race is going to include more cheering and less full on running. (I think!)
Watching Bets as MC took me back to her first ever speaking part, when she took on the important role of 'Narrator' in the Year 2 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory production. She was both shy and confident, as she timidly described how 'no one ever came in and no one ever went out' of Mr Wonka's factory (why do I still know that part word-perfect?!) To be honest I'm nonplussed how that sweet, kind, warm-hearted half hesitant, half assured little girl has flourished and grown into the confident and assured young woman she is.
Let's not pretend though, some of these 'last moments' are not to be desired. Back to dress-ups... No more fairy tale, comic relief, what makes you happy, Egyptian, Victorian, Twin, Bug, or International Day costumes for me to worry about. Bloody brilliant! Anyway, judging by the odd glimpse of photos I've been afforded of my elder daughter's nights out at university there will be lots of other dress up opportunities in the future. The difference is that, thankfully, I won't be involved in them. No more will I have to resort to going to the tailors to buy over-priced costumes, whilst pretending they were homemade or recycled!
To coin a phrase it is 'a rites of passage' time in Betsy's life and I've no doubt that her last day will be emotional, full of laughter and likely a few tears. But hey, life is full of emotional moments. I'm not, therefore about to get carried away or too choked up. Heaven forbid I should drag out old photo albums, DVDs of school productions or start talking about 'the end of an era'. That would be ridiculous. The fact that I booked my flight back to Bangkok and have been part of many of these 'this is the last time Betsy will do ... at school' events - is purely coincidental!
Saint Mick of Thana just read this and cheekily suggested that maybe the bigger rite of passage is for me no school-age kids any more ... he gave me a knowing look, but I don't understand why.