The shortage of Maths teachers in the UK at the moment is undeniable.
So much so, that there are companies who specialise in recruiting teachers from abroad and encouraging them to relocate to the UK by promising them job opportunities, competitive rates of pay and financial assistance with the costs associated with moving to a new country.
This shortage hasn’t appeared overnight. On the contrary, it has been a rather drawn out and inexorable process. It started, as many problems do, with compromise. The requirement for a mathematics graduate to teach mathematics was relaxed meaning that teachers qualified in other science subjects were now seen a viable targets to plug the gaps left by the lack of mathematics teachers. To an outsider, it may not seem unreasonable to have a Chemistry or Physics teacher take on the role of Mathematics teacher because after all they’re all science subjects right?
In the author’s opinion, this sentiment could not be more incorrect! Perhaps, the debate about what constitutes a science is a diversion to the main issue here, so I’ll resist the temptation for now. The basic premise is that there is no such thing as an ‘exact science’. By definition, a Science is inaccurate, contains errors ad is subject to constant revision. Believe it or not, these qualities are exactly what makes Science worthwhile: the ever changing nature of the field. Nothing stays stationary for very long in Science. Mathematics however, is not so malleable.
Getting back to the point, it is important to have mathematicians teach Mathematics. There are certain insights and qualities inherent amongst mathematicians that simply are not processed by those who study Mathematics as a tool: a means to an end. Yet for a considerable amount of time now, it has been commonplace to see schools with no Mathematicians on staff.
So what is it that detracts Maths graduates from teaching? There are a few ways to think about it. Firstly, in the modern world professions like Actuary, Banking, Insurance Brokerage and Financial Trading are not only regarded as prestigious but are also very well paid. So it’s money that is luring all the mathematical talent away. Well, this is probably a little simplistic.
Undoubtedly, there are many graduates who make career choices based on the potential for earnings. Who wouldn’t at least consider it when one’s life lays directly ahead of oneself as a twenty-something year old. However, Teaching always seems like more of a vocation. Teachers do what they do for personal reasons rather than financial ones, similar to Nurses. It is almost like a calling.
So why and how has this call to the teaching profession been eroded over time? As mentioned above, while money plays a major part, it’s not quite as simple as money-grabbers grabbing money. The problem with labelling something a ‘vocation’ is the accompanying implication that sacrifices must be made in order for this vocation to be moulded into a career.
Earlier I drew a comparison with Nursing and this was my deliberate intention. Nurses are undervalued and, for the most part, underpaid despite the amazing work they do caring for other people. I do not wish to suggest that Mathematicians are as important as nurses but let’s consider how the two situations differ.
For a graduate Mathematician who is tempted by the bright lights of high-paid, high octane financial work there is a tangible sacrifice to be made in order to consider a career in teaching. Indeed, there comes a point where it is unreasonable to expect a person to mortgage their financial future in order to pursue their dream job. The disparity in prestige, remuneration and perceived societal value is almost insurmountable. Indeed, it may be quite incredible that any Mathematician chooses to teach simply because of what might have been. It’s almost like settling for less to appease your own sense of comfort and that’s not what most graduates are about.
The ‘go-getters’ abound in great numbers to pastures greener drawn by the excitement. Luckily for them, on many of these pastures they reap the financial rewards aspired to by those wishing to set a firm financial groundwork for their lives.
The problem now is exacerbated by the fact that the financial chasm between teaching and industry is widening and broadening into other subject areas. Now, the science teachers are in short supply. Research institutions and global companies gobble them up and provide them with the nourishment they crave: a workplace that constantly challenges them to do more and do better as well as providing financial security.
The cold facts are these: If we truly value teachers we need to pay them as valued professionals. At the very least, we need to make it so that the wage gap between teaching and industry is not insurmountable for those who really see teaching as a vocation. We need to level the playing field, so that the choice to teach once again becomes a reality for Science and Mathematics graduates instead of compromising and settling for less qualified applicants to teach Maths in our schools.