With a shortage of subject teachers causing concern, Lawrence Watt sits in on a college Maths class with an award-winning teacher

How are you getting on?, the teacher asks. I'm fine, I reply in a 'leave me alone' way. I have to work at this and it takes time and the 15-year-olds are doing better than me.

I t's been a long time since I did much maths. It went well for me at school, our teacher tried hard and I did heaps of homework. While at journalism school I moonlighted as a maths coach.

But today you can just Google everything and leave your brain half-asleep. Why use long division, when there's a calculator on the desk or PC? And as the hair gets greyer, the maths-brain seems to go slower.

I went to some maths classes at ACG Parnell College, an independent school near Auckland Museum.


My teacher for the day is maths dean Weymond Fong, like me a young chap in his fifties. He won an Excellence in Teaching Award in 2011 and students on the 'Rate My Teachers' site says Weymond makes maths seem like "going to the gym." I am in good hands.

Our first class is year seven - kids' ages around 11. Today's topic is geometry - lines, circles, boxes and so on. I struggle to remember some of the terms. Yes, I just remember, as Weymond says, "rays, as in ray guns... rays are just like when you shine a torch into the night sky and it seems to go on forever." Fairly straightforward so far.

Weymond keeps the kids engaged by getting them to provide some answers out loud. Halfway through the lesson, he catches out a boy who has drifted off. A girl hands out our assignment sheet. I complete most of the exercises, at about the same speed as the 11-year-olds, faster than some. I get a symbol wrong, but mostly I'm doing OK.

The next class is year 11, age around 15. This time it's algebra - equations involving symbols like X and Y, where you have to work out what the values are worth. This is maths, as I remember it, before it started to get difficult in year 13.

The most famous equation in the world is no doubt Einstein's E= mc2, which has some very profound implications - like spaceships cannot exceed the speed of light and that matter and energy are the same stuff.

Weymond writes an equation on the whiteboard. My brain is a big blank. But when he begins to plug ideas into the equation, 39-year-old memories trickle back. "You have to be able to do it yourself, not just understand the teacher showing you." I tell myself. "Best to do just three problems," then check if they are right, he says.

I start working through the textbook examples. I get two right and one wrong. I then discover that I had done them in the wrong order and that I had numbered one incorrectly. Phew - it actually was right, but I would have been marked wrong. Yes my brain is still working, albeit slowly. I see I am actually a part-chapter behind; everyone else is doing the equations on the next page.

These kids are very focused and appear to be well ahead. Memories of school come flooding back. I remember a boy in my 1970s class who we gave a hard time because his maths was poor. Somehow, I reckon he had missed out on something and had just got behind. Unfortunately he never caught up, probably I thought, an emotional issue, as much as an intellectual one. He left school around age 16.

"How are you getting on," Weymond asks. "I'm fine," I reply in a 'leave me alone' way. I know I have to work at this and it takes time and the 15-year-olds are doing better than me.

At morning tea, Weymond says he asks students, in the first lesson, to say in all honesty whether they like maths, and if they remember a point in time where there was something they did not understand. A few put their hands up for both questions.

The school has a number of ways to help people catch up. First is his own teaching technique; he gets students engaged with the odd joke - how much faster can a Lamborghini get you to meet your girlfriend, than an ordinary car? This works, and he quickly moves them on. "An extremely silly example is a good thing for the kids. They will remember it," he tells me.

The school runs a maths clinic, mostly for hard-to-solve problems. Weymond and other teachers also run free coaching classes.

There are also small things, to improve your marks, he says. The marker in an exam, for example, may not understand your handwriting.

People need to 'fess up about what they don't know. "I tell the kids, I don't want to know what you got right, I want to know what you got wrong," he says. "What you got wrong is what you need help with."

Teaching maths solidly all day would be quite tiring, I suggest, wondering how I would hack it. He is not fazed, neither is he by parent-teacher interviews. They get as many kids up to speed, while celebrating excellence, having had some students get 100 per cent in the Cambridge Exam.

Weymond reckons maths is something we will always need. He recalls meeting a graduate student doing computer studies who was grateful for drilling in matrices (tables where the lines relate to each other).

"I don't know what the kids are going to do. We have to equip them for whatever they need. I don't want to close any doors," he says.

"It's use it or lose it," Also, he reckons you remember the stuff you need in your everyday life.

At least I know, that if I work at it, it will come back.

Teaching maths though, must be good for your brain. I tell myself, I will use Google less, and use my brain more. As for the homework - well, I haven't done any yet, but I am resolved to practise.