I have recently been learning to knit and often find myself translating patterns into my own notation, sometimes on grid paper, carefully keeping track of added and subtracted stitches and paying attention to symmetries and reflections of strings of Ks and Ps. When I bake, I find the consecutive steps of a recipe often need to be restructured into some sort of directed graph or table that makes it clear which steps are dependent on others or perhaps could be done in parallel. When I travel with friends I’ve convinced them of how best to split bills, and that is not to split them at all but to simply keep a running tab of plus and minuses. People tell me not everyone lives like this. It just seems my brain has been shaped this way over the years and I can’t help this mathematical thinking that permeates my life.
I’m a secondary school teacher by day. There are syllabuses to follow and exams to prepare for and the constant battle of getting students to try to understand what they are doing and not just memorise a few tricks to pass. But working mathematically is always the goal to help students become flexible and creative users of mathematics.
It was after honours and the beginnings of a PhD in Biochemistry that I came to the conclusion that research was not going to be my thing. Mathematics had always been in my blood and I loved learning, so spending my days encouraging others to get in on this business seemed a natural move. At the time it felt like I fell into a career in teaching, only getting a Diploma of Education after securing a job, but I have certainly never looked back.
My mathematical journey is a somewhat familiar one. As a young girl I was always encouraged to think deeply about what I was learning, to properly understand things, and to persevere with solving problems, particularly in mathematics and particularly by my father. He was always buying books and encouraging my school to get on board with AMT programs and enrich me in mathematics too. I spent many hours puzzling over AMC problems, working through chapters of enrichment books and solving questions to submit to correspondence programs. I did these things for many years because I simply thought that’s what you did. I suspect it wasn’t until I attended two of the Olympiad training schools in 1998 that I really began to enjoy the struggle that came with solving hard problems and the genuine satisfaction that came with finding a solution. There is little doubt that much of that enjoyment, in no small way, was due to the fact I was suddenly surrounded by fellow students who all very much enjoyed doing mathematics and it was simply extremely infectious. Looking back, it seems that from then on I was destined for a lifetime of mathematics and a circle of friends who shared that passion.
During my school years, the National Mathematics Summer School (NMSS) was another eye opener for me, a real introduction to open-ended problems and a range of areas of mathematics far from the arithmetic and algebra of school. NMSS was also, perhaps, my first real introduction to teaching. I started tutoring at the summer school towards the end of my bachelor’s degree and the teaching philosophy of NMSS, of encouraging students to learn and understand things for themselves, of playing with ideas in their own mathematical laboratories, of never spoiling anything for anyone but just offering gentle encouragement, has no doubt been fundamental in shaping my current teaching practices.
I have been teaching secondary school mathematics at SCEGGS Darlinghurst now for over 10 years and I am lucky enough to be supported by colleagues as well as a principal and deputy who love mathematics and all that this wonderful subject has to offer. Teaching is certainly never boring and I am constantly surprised by just how many ways there are to think about mathematical ideas or to introduce new concepts. Furthermore, I continue to find myself swimming in opportunities to get involved and to keep learning and growing.
In 2014, I took up the position of visiting teaching fellow at University of New South Wales. This was the most wonderful opportunity, to teach older students different mathematics as well as to be immersed in learning again myself, putting together a few more pieces of the puzzle, thinking a little more about the bigger picture and enjoying extending my mathematical family once more.
I have been adopted into a few mathematical families over my lifetime and I so dearly cherish each and every one of them and all that I learn and gain from time spent together. Over the years I have very much enjoyed giving back to all those enrichment programs that so significantly shaped my life (and continue to do so), from now taking on the role of mother hen of NMSS each January to being the baby of the committee that is responsible for the Mathematics Challenge for Young Australians. Most recently, I have taken on the role of the Mathematics Subject Leader for a new program, Curious Minds – Girls in STEM, run by the AMT in conjunction with Australian Science Innovations. This new family of educators and scientists, passionate about engaging girls in the incredibly important, powerful, exciting areas of STEM, just continues to fuel my passion for mathematics and education, and has really brought into light the significance of this career I fell into.
I remember the farewells of my first ever maths camp. I remember the overwhelming feeling of sadness, of worry, that those 10 days would end up a fleeting memory. At the time I was assured that it was the beginning and not the end and fortunately this has turned out to be true. I thank all of the people who have guided, cajoled or nudged me along the way and, now that I am the ‘nudger’ (though there are still times when I benefit from being nudged), I hope that I can open up rewarding and enjoyable pathways for many more young people.