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How We Can Fix the Maths Teacher Shortage

Updated: Apr 15, 2019



“We are looking for a dynamic, innovative teacher with a deep passion for the teaching of Mathematics, who will work collaboratively to support an effective team approach to learning.” — April 2, 2019*


“Dear all, it must be time for recruitment. We are looking for a full time Mathematics teacher. Please share with interested parties.” — April 2, 2019


“Less than one in four Year 7 to 10 students have an in-field maths teacher every year [over that period].” — Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, 2018


This year I’ve started to notice, more and more, the number of job adverts that keep rolling in via mailing lists, LinkedIn and other networks, for maths teachers. Rural schools, city schools, independent schools, public schools — all are desperate. And they’re not just desperate in Term 4 when preparing for the following year’s timetables, they’re in need all the time.


“G’day Michaela, hope your year is off to a good start. We made a no-appointment for a Network Numeracy Teacher, and I was wondering if anyone in your contact network would be interested in working at a network level?” — March 3, 2019**


“Due to an unforeseen set of circumstances, we are looking for a Mathematical Methods 3/4 teacher to commence at the start of Term 2 and continue through to the end of the year.” — March 18, 2019


“My excellent school is in a staffing pickle and we are REALLY on the hunt for teachers to start next term. Looking for a Maths/Science teacher — the length of contract can be negotiable also.” — March 25, 2019


Really, this demand shouldn’t be a surprise. We’ve been hearing for years about the numbers of maths teachers in Australia who don’t actually have maths training. In a report last year on out-of-field teaching, AMSI confirmed the problem and highlighted the extent to which it affects students: “What fraction of Year 7 to 10 students have an in-field maths teacher every year? [T]here is a 76 per cent chance of at least one out-of-field teacher, 35 per cent for at least two and 8 per cent for at least three years of out-of-field teaching.”


Having an ‘out-of-field’ maths teacher isn’t automatically problematic. Many science teachers, for example, will transition to maths already having a deep understanding of the subject. However, for others whose teaching domain is far more removed from maths, teaching maths will not be easy. Nor might these teachers have the confidence or enthusiasm for teaching it. Art teachers, P.E. teachers, humanities teachers, you name it. All are being asked to teach maths.


“This is a special request from a Principal who is seeking a VCE Maths Methods/Chemistry teacher to start Term 2. The school is a small school and since their only Maths Methods/Chemistry teacher has left, there are 17 students without a teacher for the rest of the year.” — April 1, 2019


“There’s two positions going at the senior campus for a Maths/Science or Maths/Psychology teacher. Great for experience teaching VCE and for leadership progression opportunities, and in a school that’s heading in a really good direction and supported by awesome staff.” — April 5, 2019


So what can be done? This is a system-level issue, which therefore requires a system-level response. We can’t (nor should we) expect each school to tackle the issue on its own. Here are three suggestions. I don’t pretend that they will be the answer, but they are a starting point for thinking about the magnitude of the change that’s needed.



1. Train ‘out-of-field’ teachers to become ‘in-field’

Develop a program that enables non-maths teachers to become recognised as sufficiently knowledgeable and trained in maths teaching. It could cover content knowledge to ensure there is a thorough understanding of mathematics; and pedagogical content knowledge, i.e. the most powerful tools, visualisations and approaches for teaching mathematics. According to the AMSI report, “for every thousand new graduates per annum we need to retrain an additional 600 out-of-field teachers for a five year solution and 200 out-of-field teachers per year for a 10 year solution.”


Pro’s

  • Teachers of subjects in oversupply would be able to transition across to maths and gain support in doing so

  • Schools could build this transition into their long-term planning

  • A clear gap in workforce knowledge/skills would be addressed.


Con’s

  • Training of this kind would be costly to roll out and would need to be going rather than one-off

  • Would there be sufficient non-maths teachers actually interested in becoming ‘in-field’?


2. Have teacher-led maths classes and practice/study classes

Use maths teachers sparingly, and assign them to certain types of maths classes for each student. For example, a student may have a trained maths teacher for lessons requiring explicit instruction of new skills/concepts and expert facilitation of non-routine problem solving. In other maths lessons dedicated to practice and independent study, students would be supported by out-of-field teachers or university students.


Pro’s

  • A reduction in the amount of class time where trained maths teachers are required

  • Students would have trained teachers for important classes on concept and skills development, whilst also having time to work and reflect on their learning independently.

Con’s

  • A restructure of schools’ maths programs would be required, so that a clear distinction can be made between ‘maths teacher’ classes and the others

  • Many students would need support transitioning to a model where they have increased autonomy.


3. Make maths compulsory for fewer years

Instead of students being required to study maths up until the end of Year 10, under this approach it would be a compulsory part of the curriculum up until the end of Year 8. Any student wishing to continue with maths beyond that point can do it as an elective. Electives could fill the gap between where the Year 8 curriculum ends and the Year 11 curriculum starts, and cover other areas or applications of maths.


Pro’s

  • Not all students would choose maths in Year 9 or 10, putting less of a burden on schools to find as many maths-trained teachers

  • Currently, many students give up on themselves and stop enjoying maths well before Year 10. This approach would allow them to independently decide whether to continue with the subject, and potentially do so after a break

  • Content for the Year 9 and 10 electives could be taken from pre-existing courses for those years.

Con’s

  • Students who would take a break of a year (or more) in their studies may lose some of the benefit of having consistent maths practice

  • Students may look at the choice differently to how they would at an older age. While this could be positive, alternatively it could mean that opportunities are pre-emptively closed off

  • In some schools, the number of students choosing to continue with maths may not be sufficiently reduced as to decrease the demand for maths teachers.


Whatever the solution, we know that maths is hard to learn. And it’s even harder when you don’t have a teacher who understands or cares about the subject. With concern around the numbers of students taking advanced maths in Years 11 and 12, and the general numeracy attainment (of young and old), the impact of the maths teacher shortage does not exist in isolation. It is a problem that, if sufficiently addressed, can bring profound benefit.


In this article, I've shared three measures that help us start to think differently about addressing the problem: 

  1. Train ‘out-of-field’ teachers to become ‘in-field’

  2. Have teacher-led maths classes and practice/study classes

  3. Make maths compulsory for fewer years.

If we are to be serious in fixing the maths teacher shortage, how would you refine these ideas? Are there other approaches that you have seen work?



* Throughout this article are real job adverts shared between 1 March and 6 April 2019.

**The Network Numeracy Teacher role (3 March) had zero applicants, so the schools involved removed the role.

© 2019 by Michaela Epstein. 

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