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How a ‘maths geek’ made her subject cool

  2 February, 2019

Article first published by the Tes on 2 February 2019.

When maths teacher Nicola Whiston joined a new school in September, pupils stopped their headteacher in the corridor: was there really now a celebrity in their midst? Just a few months earlier, she had been named maths teacher of the year at the Tes awards, but news of her appointment at Ormiston Horizon Academy, Stoke-on-Trent, had not been officially announced.

“As word started to spread, the students would come to check with me to see if it was true,” said Andy Fitzgibbon, headteacher. “Some stopped me in the corridor. I was delighted to let them know it was true, and we had managed to secure a teacher of such high status.”

Whiston, 33, is director of teaching and learning and interim joint head of maths at the school, having moved from Ormiston Chadwick Academy, Widnes. She was named Tes maths teacher of the year for her “unwavering desire to improve”.

She has held 7am drop-in sessions, run a school maths Instagram account and even sat an A level exam with students to improve her teaching. She is so relaxed and natural in class that she is happy to kick off her shoes, stick pens in her hair, and coax teenagers into learning maths with jokes and empathy. But at one point, the idea of standing up in front of the class made her feel physically sick – and she almost gave up on her dream of teaching.

My PE teachers were such good role models

Whiston was born in south-east London but the family moved to Cheshire when she was 10. She was a sporty child and at secondary school she nurtured the idea of becoming a PE teacher – like the adults she admired.

“I Ioved school so much,” she says. “I had two really good PE teachers in secondary school. They were everything I wanted to be. I felt a real bond with them.

“They were such good role models and they made me feel good about myself. I remember thinking I’d love to be a teacher like that.”

But her sporting ambitions were set back when a knee injury in Year 11 meant an operation followed by four to five months on crutches. Her school did not offer A-Level PE and she felt she had lost out on becoming a PE teacher.

She kept her options open with A levels in maths, psychology and biology and an AS level in further maths. Then she studied psychology at Liverpool John Moores University.

“I still wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do,” she says. “I remember thinking I used to want to be a PE teacher, but I hated standing up in class. I hated reading out loud at school and that always stayed in my head.

“I thought how can I be a teacher if I can’t stand up? I just didn’t have the confidence.”

So she decided to go into sales.

Soon she had a nice car, and was driving around the country selling blood-tracking software to hospitals. A good job – but not for her.

She decided to face her fear and return to school.

Whiston applied to do a mathematics subject knowledge enhancement (SKE) course and then a PGCE; she loved it. “From day one, I was an absolute keeno,” she says. “I remember being really, really nervous in my first placement when I arrived. I physically felt sick at the thought of taking a lesson. But once I got into it, it was fine. It passed. It just became really natural.”

And at that first placement, at Halton High, soon to become Ormiston Bolingbroke Academy, in Runcorn, she was offered a job.

“All the schools I’ve worked in have been a really high percentage of disadvantaged and of pupil premium kids. I have never worked in a school where all the children are privileged and I like this type of school, this is my niche,” she says.

They don’t want to let me down

Her approach to teaching is simple to state, but perhaps harder in practice – make your classroom somewhere the children want to come, somewhere they feel happy and settled. And follow up on everything.

“I think I try to make sure I have the relationships so they don’t want to let me down. So if they do something wrong in the classroom they don’t like that I’m not happy with them and they don’t like the consequences, but I do follow up.

“As much as I get on with them, if they are not doing what I expect, they still get the same consequences as everybody else. It’s that firm but fair thing.”

Nicola Whiston, winner of the Tes awards maths teacher of the year 2018

For pupils who have been struggling in maths, having a teacher who will not give up on them can be transformational.

“I feel more confident than I did before she was here,” Year 11 student Michaela Calvert, 15, says. “I think it is just her way of teaching you. She breaks it down so it is easier for you to understand. She keeps going over it, if you don’t understand, until you do.”

And Whiston recognises that encouragement isn’t just for kids.

She is keen to praise the excellent support she had in her first job at Ormiston Bolingbroke Academy, especially from her then head of department Ben Barry and Tuesday Humby, now regional director (north) for Ormiston Academies Trust but then the assistant principal at Bolingbroke.

As an NQT, Whiston was given GCSE set 2 class, while Barry had set 1.

They competed to see who could get the best results – but while she enjoys competitions Whiston is, above all, a team player. She now can’t remember who won the “competition” (although she feels she did) but she does remember that all the students passed.

Keen to progress, she asked Barry to give her an A level class. But he was wary, as Whiston didn’t have a degree in maths. She proved her ability with an unusual strategy – by sitting the A level herself alongside the students. The students laughed, but Whiston got 99 per cent, and the chance to teach A level.

Knowing how to motivate people is the key to successful teaching and Whiston has come up with some creative solutions.

At Ormiston Chadwick, where she was promoted to head of maths after a year as a maths teacher, she asked the technical department to make her a wooden Christmas tree. (“It was a lot bigger than I thought, eight foot, it was huge”).

Then all the children did work on transformations on green paper and then stuck them on the tree, so that over the weeks the tree became green. Students doing circle theorems did them on circular paper plates and added them as baubles. In the last lesson of the term, she expected more work, but allowed them to add some glitter.

“I’m not a fan of letting them watch a film,” she explains. “Even just talking about maths while glittering a circle theorem plate is more valuable than watching Elf for the thousandth time.”

An unwavering desire to improve

Her success is also built on taking the time to get to know her pupils.

She takes broadly different approaches with boys and girls – girls respond well, she has found, to lots of “little conversations”, but she will walk away and force them to think.

“They do have a strop almost,” she says. “They think I’m not helping them and occasionally you’ll see the pen goes down. That’s the time to let them have that little moment and a couple of seconds later they get back into it”.

For teenage boys, she prefers a more jokey tack, flinging her arms wide and pretending to be shocked (“what do you mean you can’t do this?”) when a student is stuck. For the majority of boys she finds it works to tackle difficulties this way – head-on but not seriously. 

But with both boys and girls she uses a lot of praise – and then there is simple solution of just spending lots of time doing maths.

A single parent with two young daughters, when Whiston was at Ormiston Chadwick, would arrive at around 7am after dropping off her children with her parents.

And at one parents evening, when speaking to a mum about her Year 11 son’s underperformance, she suggested sending him in early to do a bit of extra maths.

“You know what, I will,” the mum replied. And she packed him in.

Then others started coming in too.

The informal early morning club was not about tutoring. Whiston didn’t teach, but would have something ready for them.

It gave the students a chance to go through their maths work, to chat with each other, eat breakfast together and to ask her for help.

And when she sent out pictures on Instagram, it even started becoming a bit cool.

It was this kind of initiative that impressed the Tes award judges, who said they were impressed by her “unwavering desire to improve and to keep improved both herself and the outcomes for the students she teaches. Such dedication and passion is an inspiration to all.” 

Whiston is a “maths geek”. She works hard on coming up with creative solutions to helping students and trainees, and knows the best way to inspire people is to make them feel welcome and able to succeed.

Once tempted into sales by the nice car, she now admits that with young children her car is not as pristine as it could be.

But she has found joy through her decision to teach. “I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do,” she says. “If you have bad days, a bad lesson, then you take a deep breath and you’re in the next hour and you get on with fresh kids.

“And especially in school like this, the kids really need school in their lives.”


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