Career & Education

'I failed maths twice'

Maths teacher of the Year 2017 rebounds from rocky relationship with subject

Sunday, May 07, 2017

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Maths teacher of the Year 2017 rebounds from maths experience 


You wouldn't guess it, but a few years ago when principal Iris Lewis told Neisha Grant-Lawrence she would be the lead mathematics teacher at Crescent Primary School, the young teacher cried and cried. But they weren't tears of joy; they were the result of excruciating fear. She dreaded the subject which she had struggled to pass in high school.

“No I can't do it, Miss! I didn't do well in maths and I had to do it twice,” principal Lewis reported, mimicking the tone of her then 26-year-old protégé as she recounted the story.

Seated in the staff lunchroom at the school on the outskirts of Spanish Town recently, Grant-Lawrence, now 32, told the Jamaica Observer: “I received two grade threes at CXC [so] when my principal told me that I would be teaching mathematics only from grades two to five, I was devastated.”

What made the subject especially problematic was her experience in the classroom, she said.

“I was not engaged,” she said of her initial encounter with the subject at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level. “Mathematics was just about going to class and going to school. You had to do mathematics.”

However, her second attempt to grasp the subject, after graduating high school and with the assistance of a retired teacher, transformed the monstrous subject into a relatable and essential part of her life. However, that experience was dented by her teacher's sudden passing.

“I said to myself: Is this what mathematics was all about? She just made it seem so easy! But after the Christmas term, she went to the beach and drowned,” Grant-Lawrence related with a hint of sadness in her voice.

The tragedy affected her badly and she received another grade three in mathematics. Nevertheless, her other grades were good enough to grant her matriculation into The Mico University College, where she pursued a Diploma in Primary Education.

Motivated by the clarity her now-deceased teacher had provided, Grant-Lawrence performed much better at mathematics while in college. 'A's and 'B's soon became standard, but she never thought of specialising in the subject as an educator. Not until her principal thrust the job squarely into her lap, that is.

The Ministry of Education had decided to implement the Primary School-Based Mathematics Teachers programme, and principal Lewis insisted that she take on the task of being the school's sole mathematics teacher. And similar to the biblical story of Moses, what started out as a moment of agony and resistance for Grant-Lawrence, slowly morphed into enlightenment, as she faced her proverbial “burning bush".

“As I went along, I realised that it was something I could master. And I loved it!” she gushed. “When I went into the classroom and engaged with students, they became excited."

That love has earned Grant-Lawrence the title of 2017 Ministry of Education/JN Bank National Mathematics Teacher of the Year. At the award presentation ceremony a month ago, the teacher heaped gratitude on her principal Lewis for having pushed her.

Herself a maths specialist, Lewis told Career & Education that she based the decision to elevate Grant-Lawrence not based on her CSEC maths grades, but on her inquiring mind, and her gentleness and patience with her students.

“Although she didn't do well in mathematics, she is a reader, and I knew she would have taken the time to do her research to find out things she doesn't know,” Lewis said.

“I would go around and spend hours observing my teachers to see how they work with students. I watched Mrs Lawrence, and I realised that she worked very well with the slow children,” she continued.

Those skills are particularly important at Crescent Primary. Located in one of Spanish Town's depressed areas, it is home to students with a range of financial, emotional needs, spurned by continual violence fed by clashes between rival gangs.

“About 90 per cent of our students come from poor contexts where there is political and gang violence, and they are disoriented at school,” the principal explained. “Their minds are on other things, and often they are not ready to learn,” she added, pointing out that the school functions as a safe haven for many students.

“You don't hear about all the things that happen here on the news; and so much happens,” she bemoaned. She related the story of a girl who was kidnapped, raped and killed after being kept from school by her grandmother, in order to shield her from a flare up of gun violence in her community.

“We have children who come to school in the morning and they tell us what they have seen, because in these communities things are done in the presence of everybody. So the children are fearful when they come,” she related.

Before Grant Lwarence's intervention, Crescent Primary performed below the national average in the Grade Four Literacy and Numeracy tests, scoring in the 40s and 30s respectively. However, over the past eight years, the scores have steadily increased to 89 per cent for literacy, and 64 per cent for numeracy, the latter as a result of her work in the five years that she has been the school's maths specialist.



See continuation in next week's edition








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