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Primary Education News
News Doing a maths degree revitalised my teaching career
Redundancy forced Dave Pearson from a job he loved in a PRU, but doing a part-time maths degree alongside supply work has injected new energy and purpose into his teaching
I qualified as an engineer before I went into teaching, but a redundancy after my first year of work led me to a bit of a crossroads. My mum was a primary school teacher and my dad a welding lecturer and they suggested I think about teaching. Design and technology (DT) was a relatively new subject in schools and so with my engineering background and interest in making things I thought this would work.
I did a two year teaching degree in Wolverhampton as DT was a shortage subject. Unfortunately, I collapsed a disc in my back while I was in the middle of the degree and spent most of the last year wearing a whalebone corset, barely able to walk. Sometimes I even had to lay down on the floor in lectures to take notes and in my first teaching practice I was navigating my way around the classroom looking for the next desk to hold onto. Luckily a spine operation just before my finals sorted my back out.
After my degree I had six job interviews but didn't get a job at first so went into supply teaching. Interestingly, I did supply at schools where I'd gone for interviews and ended up being offered jobs I hadn't got at interview. So I'm convinced doing supply work is a great route to getting a job.
I didn't really know I had found my vocation when I started teaching. I was more giving it a shot as an avenue to explore. My first job was at Archbishop Grimshaw school (now John Henry Newman Catholic College) in Chorley Wood and I was really pleased that they paid me two points above the starting scale because of my previous engineering experience and my age. That got me through my NQT year, but then I decided to do supply again.
I got an offer of some work at North Warwickshire Pupil Referral Unit (PRU). I took it for the adventure and as another string to my bow. So I went into working with children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) and special educational needs (SEN) quite lightly. I first walked into the PRU on Monday 8 January 1998, I remember the date because it was such an important turning point in my life.
First of all I sat on groups in the unit without being given a specific role, the same thing happened on Tuesday. So I went to see the head of the centre to ask what I was actually doing here. I found out the first couple of days were an initiation, as many teachers never came back after the first day. Then I found out about my first pupil, a young man in Nuneaton whose behaviour levels were so bad that no one had been able to engage with him in any way. The centre head told me I could teach him anything I liked as long as you engage him.
So it was a very open brief, before the days when PRUs were monitored and regulated by Ofsted. I went with a project of Roman history but as soon as I walked into the room with the boy and his little brother who had been excluded from primary school, I knew this wasn't going to work at any level. The next time I took my tool box and worked on a project manufacturing working models, and that did the trick.
I met lots of different types of families in the course of working for North Warwickshire PRU, some were in desperate situations and by the time they saw us there were three generations of problems stacking up. I made it my mission to directly improve the quality of people's lives by going to their homes and put some good into their lives, and try and develop the ability. I started with five tutees who I was supposed to spend one hour a day with. I was able to tailor specific programmes to meet my pupil's diverse needs and found they responded best when I taught them real life skills.
Working with children with serious behavioural, emotional and developmental special needs is very challenging but I realised from the start that it was for me. I've never experienced camaraderie as in the PRU. I was offered a contract after a year and then made a permanent member of staff. Our aim was to start teaching children at home and then slowly bring them into the PRU in small groups and from there the idea was to go back into mainstream education, but this was very rare. Teaching some children at home was infinitely better than bringing into the PRU in groups. And if you brought them to the groups too early, it was mayhem. So we were really quite devastated when all the work we'd put in at the PRU wasn't recognised and was trashed by Ofsted who put us in special measures and then ultimately closed us down in 2011 as part of a move to replace PRUs with learning support units within mainstream schools. I was made redundant and it was an incredibly stressful period.
But something happened to me while all this was happening which was a real light in my life and has led to what I'm doing now. I started teaching maths to some of the groups at the PRU and really enjoyed it.
I only had my O-level in maths, so I did an A-level at evening classes at City College Coventry. I loved it. My maths guru Saeed Vakilpour suggested I did an A-level in further maths before starting a degree and I was still finishing that when I got made redundant so it was a real light shining at a dark time for me.
Doing well at my A-levels really increased my flagging self esteem and I decided to do a degree in maths with the Open University. I've just completed my first year and am loving it.
At the same time I have been doing some really enjoyable supply work. I've had a number of assignments at Newbridge Short Stay School in Worcester which has a very similar function to a PRU and I'm mainly focusing on maths teaching. So it's all worked out for me. It just goes to show that even when terrible things happen in your career, you can pick yourself up and find another niche. My plan long term is to teach A-level maths, which I have already been doing privately. I've also picked up my design and technology teaching again at Newbridge which has a great DT workshop.
I love teaching maths. I think it's because it's a subject that I struggled with when I was at school. I'm not a mathematical genius but I stoically plod through my degree, unpicking it completely so I understand and I think that really helps with teaching it. I love it seeing the light come on as it did with me.
Dave Pearson is a maths teacher (and student) and BESD specialist.