Podcast – How the author found maths hard at school and how he approached his studies

Lilac coloured folded paper graphic
John Waterman talking in May 2019 about how difficult he found maths to study and how he approached his learning

When I was taking what the equivalent of GCSEs are today. I actually didn’t find maths that easy. I used to find things like quadratic equations a bit confusing. And I didn’t know what was different about that, and a lot of other sorts of equations.

I found it a bit frustrating to be honest. But when it came to the sixth form, I had to decide on what subjects to take.  The only one I was any good at, at that stage was physics. So they said to me, “Well if you want to do physics, I’m afraid you’ve got to do maths.” Can I miss that? I’m sure there are other things. I would quite like to do French. You can’t do French, it doesn’t go with the timetable. You’ll have to do maths, so I did maths.

But you’ve also got to choose three A levels. Oh goodness! So I did choose physics and two maths subjects. They’re split slightly differently these days, but effectively it’s the same kind of idea. And so I began on the course, reluctantly and rather fearfully, I have to say, because I hadn’t found it that easy to date.

So when I got underway, I guess it was the teachers who made the difference. I had a teacher who had flaming red hair called Miss Nex, of all things. And she was a really lovely lady. I suppose through her, she seemed harmless, so it seemed an “unfrightening” subject because of her. So that began to warm me to it, but I also had another teacher called Mr. Payne, who was not a pain at all, he was delightful chap. And it was him, who I could see, was devoted to the subject, that is the only way I could say it.

And he would delightfully share with bright eyes, some idea he wanted to talk about or some puzzle he’d just come across. And it was infectious. I still didn’t find it easy and I was not in the top set. But as I did more and more of it, my desire to conquer this subject and to gain the sort of insights as my teachers, had spurred me on to work hard, I guess.

And I still never ended up at the top set, but I loved it. And by that time A-Levels come around, I’d been working so hard at it, I managed to get good grades, and the teacher said to me, “Well have you thought of applying to Oxford?” And, well, the short answer was, “Absolutely not.” And my parents thought that they must have mistaken me for some other student because nobody in the family had ever been to a university before, let alone to Oxford.

So to cut a long story short, I worked like crazy. I worked like crazy. I always felt that it was a little bit unfair because there were students in my class who seemed to get it straight away. You know, the teacher would explain it and there’s, “Oh, yeah, I see.” And then the teacher will ask someone, “What does that mean? What do you think the answer to this would be?” And someone would put their hand up and say it and the teacher would say, “Well done, James” or whatever their name was, and I would be lost. I’d then have to scurry away and work through and it might take me an hour to see that, “Oh, now I see why that’s the answer.”

So I worked very hard. I loved to work for it. It was totally fascinating. The kind of questions that you had to answer for Oxford entry exams were so delightful that I never minded and I remember doing questions, trying to do problems on the bus on the way home. And then when I got in, I didn’t want to take my coat off. So I’d sit on the stairs, carrying on doing this problem. And my dad would get in from work, he would say, “What are you doing sitting on the stairs still?” I would be oblivious to the world because I was determined to crack this thing.

Anyway, so I went to Oxford in the end and it was hard, there is no doubt about it, it was hard and I struggled. And, as at school, there were plenty of students who didn’t struggle. And they were the students that were going to go on and do research and make a name for themselves and all the rest of it. For me, it was just the pleasure of that moment, that Eureka moment, where you are stuck on a problem and you say, “Ah, I see, if I combine this with that, it all comes out.”

And so I got through, I managed. I didn’t get high marks in my degree, but it didn’t really matter. What it gave me was that way in to become a maths teacher and be like Mr. Payne and try and communicate my enthusiasm and my love for the beauty of the subject to other students.

John Waterman May 2019