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My journey: Job talk, Shabana Raman

Our Members had a fascinating insight into the world of maths education and new ways of teaching maths when one of our newest Members, Shabana Raman, gave her job talk the other evening.

Shabana’s classification for Rotary is “Education – Mathematics”, and thanks to her very informative job talk our Members got to understand more about what she does and how her work differs from that of a typical maths teacher. 

Shabana’s mathematical journey started literally as that – a journey – when she left the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean (off the southeast coast of the African continent) to attend University here in the UK. For many of us the Island is synonymous with palm trees and beautiful beaches; showing us a picture of just such a scene, Shabana confirmed “it IS rather beautiful.”

After finishing her schooling Shabana had taken a year out to work towards University. She had never travelled anywhere before, so the long journey (12 hours non-stop, or 18 hours if travelling via Dubai) was a totally new experience for her.

But why did she end up becoming a teacher? In order to make ends meet as an international student in the UK she started out tutoring students at primary level before progressing into the secondary environment (which was “more fun,” she said). That experience had been so rewarding that she later decided to make teaching her profession.

Her first teaching job was at a comprehensive secondary school. It was a real baptism of fire for the 24-year-old who’d grown up in Mauritius. The inner London school had some 3,000 youngsters from a diverse range of backgrounds who were very different to those students she’d tutored. A huge number of behavioural challenges with the youngsters (police officers would be in the school at lunchtimes to help) tempted Shabana to quit. However, teaching had become a vocational calling so she chose to plough on and continue in her work of helping young people achieve their ambitions through education.

In 2008 good fortune smiled upon her in the form of a head-hunter who got in touch to see whether she would be interested in taking a lecturing role at an Independent School in Canterbury. “Where’s Canterbury?!” Shabana wondered – but tantalised by the £250 recruitment fee she chose to attend the interview at Cambridge Arts and Sciences (CATS Colleges). The interview went well and Shabana was offered the job. She flourished in this environment for the next few years, teaching hundreds of students during this time. When she first started the role at CATS the organisation only had a couple of hundred learners; by the time Shabana left in 2015 it had grown “exponentially”, delivering education to a vast number of students across several buildings along Canterbury’s New Dover Road, as well as other branches around the country.

After working at CATS Colleges Shabana made the return to state education, working for a comprehensive school in Tenterden. During her time there (2015-2020) she rapidly rose up the career ladder, although this meant fewer teaching responsibilities the more she progressed. She was initially employed as a Teacher of Maths, before becoming a Staff Governor and finally taking the lead as the School’s Grammar Stream Coordinator. The latter role, developing a Grammar Stream that was closer than Ashford Grammar School for youngsters near Tenterden who had passed, or nearly passed, the Kent Test was particularly interesting for Shabana. “That was really good fun – and challenging!” she said of the her time developing the Grammar Stream provision. 

In 2020, she  progressed into a new role – this time with EKC Group, a family of six community-based colleges (at Ashford, Dover, Folkestone, Broadstairs, Canterbury and Sheppey). At this point Shabana found herself in a completely new and unfamiliar world – that of further education.

With some 12,000 students and more than 1,500 staff, the EKC Group has a huge remit delivering a vast array of technical and vocational education, higher education, apprenticeships and other provision. It even has its own four-star hotel in Broadstairs (The Yarrow), and has a combined turnover in excess of  £54m pa. Shabana now works as a Mathematics Advanced Practitioner for the whole Group. This ensures her role is exceptionally varied, and means she can be teaching at a different college every day of the week! She currently works with the Director of Mathematics with the aim of embedding strategies and pedagogies in the teaching, learning and assessment of mathematics across the Group.

At this point in her talk, Shabana focussed more specifically on maths education – particularly in relation to further education (FE). She told the audience that many FE students who want to take a vocational course (such as plumbing or hairdressing) don’t have the maths or English qualifications that they require. The Group has a policy of enrolling learners who haven’t achieved a pass in GCSE maths and English, so that when they finish their studies they will have been given the chance to achieve in these core subjects.

Looking into the reasons for failure, particularly in maths, Shabana said many young people may well have become disengaged with the subject. “It’s our job,” she said “to find out why and to help them to get better at the subject”. And this is when Shabana introduced us to the concept of “maths anxiety” – defined in 1972 as “feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations” (1). We learnt that more than one-third of 15- to 24-year-olds feel anxious about mathematics. “The key question I ask myself,” said Shabana, “is how do we make maths more fun and engaging?”

One way, she said, is “Maths Mastery.” This is an educational strategy first formally proposed by Benjamin Bloom in 1968, that gives students a secure understanding of one topic at a time, rather than bombarding them with too much information. Shabana had worked on the Maths Mastery project at her previous school in Tenterden. She had helped to embed the project within the Department of Mathematics there and, alongside the Director of Mathematics at the EKC Group, is currently working across the six colleges to embed the Mastery Programme within their maths delivery.

Shabana pointed out how, in the UK, retention of maths learning is low. Mastery focuses on deeper thinking about the procedure rather than the answer and can help improve retention. With Mastery, students are also encouraged to discuss maths. It’s a strategy that is used with great success in South Asia and helps to account for high success rates in maths by the students there. 

However, trying to change the traditional way of teaching is a challenge. “We really need to change the mindset, and we must continue putting the students first,” Shabana told us. In order to accomplish this, Shabana is trying to teach the basic principles of Mastery. “It’s not very easy,” she says – “especially for teachers with several years of teaching experience who may have become institutionalised by older styles of delivery.”

To give us a better understanding of the Mastery concept, Shabana gave an example of how maths might have been previously taught, and how it can be taught in a better way using Mastery. In years gone by a child may have been given a whole page of sums – additions, subtractions, and positive and negative values – to do during class. But the sheer number of variations in the questions baffle the student. With Mastery one focuses on acquiring one or two skills before moving to the next. 

Shabana also told us of her involvement with a Department for Education research project as a result of the pandemic. This involves exploring the impact of digital platforms on the engagement and motivation of mathematics learners in further education. The project aims to design new approaches and spread best practices whilst simultaneously decreasing the number of failures. 

Finally, Shabana told us about her voluntary role at Invicta National Academy. This aims to help struggling students for free, with teaching and tuition in the core subjects of maths and English. The Academy was initially for children in Kent, but due to high demand has since expanded across the UK with the recruitment of more than 120 qualified teachers of maths and English at primary and secondary level. It has delivered more than 3 million minutes of learning since its inception. All the classes are delivered remotely, giving students across the country the opportunity to access exceptional educational provision online. However, the project relies entirely on donations and the goodwill and vocational passion of teachers. Shabana is proud to have successfully led the recruitment of teachers during the summer and is now the Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the organisation.

Shabana’s talk was received with a warm round of applause and a vote of thanks from Dee Mepstead. 

To find out more about the EKC Group, click here

To find out more about Invicta National Academy, click here.

Picture: Shabana Raman. Picture credit: Shabana Raman/Rotary Club of Canterbury.

(1) Richardson and Suinn, 1972

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