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From school struggles to STEM celebrity: Anne's story

11 Nov 2022

By Lizzie Green, Communications Officer

As a child, Anne was put off maths by exam anxiety and a negative comment from a teacher that haunted her for years. She later returned to education, built her number confidence, and transformed her life. For Number Confidence Week, we found out just how she did it!

What has your journey with maths been like?

It was fine all the way through primary school, but when I got to secondary I started struggling with exams. I had a teacher who said, “If you're not having a good day, don't bother coming in because you'll do better with the prelim result.” I later had a teacher who got me through my exams and I actually got quite a good grade, but that first teacher’s comment stuck with me. After that I thought I was just rubbish at maths and avoided it.

About 10 years later, I wanted to go back to college. I told my friend and he asked why I hadn’t. I said, “I’m rubbish at maths and construction needs maths, so it's a dead duck. It's not going to happen for me.” But he said, “Why don't you apply and see, and then talk to a lecturer about what maths you actually need?” So I did, and they told me that while maths was part of it, it’s not all of it, and they’d help me. I was very lucky to have lecturers who not only understood the maths, but its practical application to the subject. I could openly voice that I was struggling, and they were all accommodating and pointed me towards resources that could help. I've since gone on to get a degree in Construction Management, and I'm now getting a postgraduate diploma in Quality Management, both of which have lots of maths and data.

I then started working for STEM Ambassadors. Before I’d never have thought I could give a talk to primary school children for fear that they would ask me a maths question, but I learnt how to tell a child about what maths is in my job, as a construction planner. I thought I didn’t have anything to say, but the people at STEM Ambassadors asked me to describe what I do, and after listening to me they said, “That's all maths!"  There's the data analysis side of it, even just scheduling and what seems like basic stuff: if this is going to take two weeks, we need 10 guys. If we want to do it in a week, we need 20 guys. It's everyday maths. I did a video talking about my job for STEM ambassadors, and that gave me the confidence to sign up to the National Numeracy Champion training, to see how else I could support people.

How did you find the Becoming a Numeracy Champion training?

It was excellent. It backed up the idea that we all do everyday maths and don’t realise it. You can apply that if you're trying to help people. Talking with children, it can be going shopping or a trip to the cinema or something – how many lampposts have we passed? We also talked about how when people are struggling with everyday maths they can even miss out on getting to appointments on time, and that can have serious implications. So, it was really good in the training to hear other people's experiences of how they've supported people with number confidence. It really opened my eyes about the language that we use, because even what we think is positive can actually be quite negative. Like when footballers say, “Well, I didn't need maths and I'm earning so much money." They don't mean anything bad, but it reinforces that you don't need to try.

Also, since doing the training I've been talking more about my story and realising how many people feel the same. Even a teacher who was head of a maths department, who I was speaking to around doing maths anxiety awareness with schools, had a story very similar to mine. She didn’t have the qualification needed to be a teacher, so went back and got her GCSE and found a love for maths and now she’s head of a maths department!

Learning people's stories as you go along is really special because for so long you’ve thought that you're alone.

And has the Becoming a Numeracy Champion training helped you as a STEM Ambassador?

It's helped me personally to understand my barrier around maths and break it down, but also how I can help others to break it down. It helps me to have that conversation and tell them that actually I wasn't that good at maths either, but it's a skill that you can practise. I often compare it to football and dancing. With both, if you want to get better, you practise. In football you don't need to practise the whole game all the time, sometimes you'll do drills; if you're doing dancing, maybe you’re working on one specific dance move. It’s the same with maths – you don't do the whole of maths, you focus on one specific thing at a time.

What would you say to other people who are thinking of becoming a Numeracy Champion?

Absolutely, go ahead and do it! Now I feel confident in my ability to make my own skills better, and to support others to become better. And the thing that I really found important was talking about positive language and really understanding what you say to your child, because what that teacher said to me all those years ago stuck with me and held me back for so long. It was one flippant comment, but it was always there in my mind.

Those three weeks were really inspiring and thought-provoking because I just learned so much.

What have you done since?

Now I'll seek out maths, and talking about maths. For example, I did a number of things for Maths Week Scotland. One was a blog about the ways in which we see maths in the built environment. I also did a few sessions with a high school about maths anxiety – telling the students about my story, and teaching them about growth mindset.

I also did a session on maths anxiety for parents, and a whole class of parents turned up! The teacher said that the parents were really encouraged and she's asked me to go back and speak to the teachers and the children. They were pleasantly surprised that it was focused towards the language and how to support children. Speaking to people I’ve found that they feel the problem is that there's a difference between what they were taught at school and what their children are learning. It’s good to show them that you don't need to necessarily know their way, but you can still help find the way together.

I also did an online session called STEMazing Structures. I spoke about the maths that we use in construction – the shapes, why we choose certain shapes because it makes them stronger than others, etc. And it was super successful! I had 269 classes join that day, and 491 classes had registered in total that will receive the recording! I then did one later on in the week, for more of a secondary level on data collection and construction, and I was with a teacher in the staff room, and the teacher said, “Where do I know you from? Oh! You did the structure thing yesterday my class was at!” I've never been STEM famous before! I wouldn’t have ever expected that a year ago, and certainly not around maths.

How do you think the Numeracy Champion training has helped you?

For me it's been transformational. It's completely changed my attitude around maths. The amount of change I’ve had, I wouldn't have thought was possible within a year. I feel much more confident with the maths I'm doing at work, and while I know I might not be the best-ever maths person, I know that I'm giving it a good shot and actually I'm doing okay.

It feels really special to be on the other side now. Being able to help people with something I struggled with is a privilege.

What advice would you give to others?

Build your number confidence so that you can get the opportunities you want. I missed out on so many years because I was so frightened. I've now got a job that I love, a degree, and I'm on my way to getting my postgraduate diploma. I'm enjoying a life that I love. You don't need to be afraid of the whole world of mathematics, because you don't need the whole world of mathematics. Even if you want to be a mathematician, you might only want to specialise in a certain area. Figure out what you need for the everyday and focus your energies on getting better at that so that you can get the opportunities you want. You don't need to know everything. You might just need to know how to pay your bills or to read bus timetables and that's perfectly fine. It's about learning what you need to get by. In a maths exam situation you can't ask for help, but in the real world you can.

I'm also a homeowner now. At one point I didn't think that was possible, but understanding how to control my money helped me with all sorts of things. Before, I would have avoided a lot of things to do with maths, but now I'm much more proactive with it. I can understand the implications of percentage rises and mortgages, rather than just that it’s going up. Everyone can get that sort of appreciation, but understanding to what extent that affects you is good because otherwise that can cause anxiety. Now I can look at it, have an understanding and not be so frightened by it. A lot of people go to avoidance, but I now know from personal experience that avoiding it doesn't help, but being proactive certainly does.

Getting past that maths barrier has – it sounds cheesy – but it changed my life.

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