Celebrity teacher Eddie Woo – creator and star of WooTube — was one of 12 inspirational teachers honoured at the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards for making a difference in their schools, their communities, and the wider Australian education system.
Q.Why did you become a teacher?
The thing that made me really interested in education was that there’s nothing quite like working in a school. You get to interact with people and I’m really a people person. I think I would have a lot of trouble going into finance and sitting at a desk all day and pushing numbers around a computer screen.
Teaching is this wonderful opportunity to interact with young people over an extended period of time, to get to know them and what makes them tick, what they love and cling to, what makes them get up in the morning, and what they hate and want to change about the world.
All those kinds of opportunities to guide and help young people to grow, for me, is just an endless privilege. Every single year you get to meet a hundred new kids in your classes and find out what they’re like, how you can help them and how you can open their eyes to help them see that they’re capable of things they don’t even know – I love that!
I was very much into the humanities when I was at school, I studied the highest level English, History and Drama but when I got to university, for me teaching was more about the students than it was about the subject.
I just really wanted to be in the place I could be of most use, and when I turned up for enrolment they said there was a critical shortage of maths teachers, so that was where there was need.
I signed my name on the dotted line and never looked back.
Q.How did the idea for video classes come about?
In 2012 I taught a student who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and while undergoing an incredibly intense treatment regime, he would spend maybe three or four weeks at school and then miss maybe a month to six weeks getting treatment and recovering – which was disastrous for his level of understanding.
Obviously it’s very difficult to learn any subject in that fragmented way, and I think mathematics is even worse because so much of the knowledge is interconnected and interrelated.
So my goal was to ensure that he could simply continue learning with the rest of the class, I wanted him to feel like he was part of the class and not some liability or feel that he was lagging behind when he came back to school.
So I just got my phone, put it up on a table and hit record. The quality was awful but you could see the white board and you could hear my voice and from there it kind of grew. I think it scratched an itch that people had. I never set out for it to be something that was viewed broadly, but people just found it useful.
Lots of people have said it’s really well thought out and creative, but it was sort of by accident.
Teachers are resourceful, that’s what we do. If you want me to teach fractions just give me a five meter bit of rope and I’ll teach you fractions.
Even though it looks fancy and well planned out, it’s just what teachers do every day.
Q. What do you think can be done to encourage more students to do maths?
Number one, mathematics is a very personal subject; I don’t think most people perceive it as a personal subject because it has this reputation for being dry and procedural.
You just follow a set of steps and you get a number. It’s very different to writing a poem or studying history and learning about all these incredible characters and the unfolding of events.
But what people don’t realise is that History and English and all those features are in mathematics.
Mathematics is just about the human desire to understand and appreciate the patterns around us in the world.
That’s why maths is more than numbers because there’s lots of patterns in the world that aren’t numerical. The pattern of seeds on a sunflower, the way I tie my shoelaces or all the different ways of tying a tie – all of those things can be understood mathematically.
A lot of people hate mathematics but that’s because they don’t understand what it is. So helping people see it for its true nature is really important.
The second thing is that I want my classroom to be a place where people can embrace taking risks, trying a way to solve a question even when you’re not sure, putting up your hand when you don’t know if you have the right answer but you want to contribute to the community of learners who are in your classroom.
The word fail is really negative but I always tell my students that when you fail something it’s just your First Attempt In Learning. It’s the first step you have to take before you realise, ok let’s change things, lets improve.
I want to help students realise that the mathematics classroom is a friendly and a safe place to imagine things, and to take risks and to go out on a limb. I don’t think that people have anything against numbers or patterns, they just don’t like feeling dumb, and mathematics makes a lot of people feel dumb because they get a wrong answer and then it’s a bit depressing. So I think that personal approach is really my hallmark.
Q. How did you get nominated for the teaching awards?
I received an anonymous nomination and I got an email saying someone nominated you for this award and from there I had to address the criteria on the website.
The teaching awards aren’t a popularity contest, they’ve paid an incredible amount of attention to what makes an excellent teacher, what qualities are important for a teacher and what kinds of achievements different teachers and school leaders have made.
The criteria includes what ways have you as a teacher improved the learning outcomes of your students? How have you contributed to your community through the work that you’ve done in your school? How have you introduced innovative practices that have helped students to access learning? How have you contributed to communities and groups of people that maybe are traditionally underrepresented in traditional education for example? What things have you done and have you demonstrated all of those skills?
I had to provide my principal’s contact because he provided a reference and after they interviewed him they interviewed me and I guess they found my answers appropriate because I was incredibly fortunate to be one of the 12 teaching fellows who were selected.
Q. What achievement are you most proud of being a teacher?
For me it’s about people and the impact I’m able to make on them. In some ways I think my greatest achievement might be the impact I’ve made on an individual students life.
There’s a famous quote; “A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell where his influence stops” which means their impact on a student is much more than ‘I taught you Pythagoras once upon a time’.
I like to think that in my mathematics classroom, I teach students about perspective. How to solve a problem in a creative way and persevere when the answer isn’t obvious, and also to collaborate with their peers who have strengths and weaknesses in different areas that they can complement.
For me that’s what teaching mathematics is about. Those qualities are things which [I hope] my students take with them whatever they go and do – whether they become an engineer, or an actuary, or a chef, or an artist, or a business owner.
Last year for instance I taught the school captain, and she had an incredibly diverse group of skills and leadership qualities, she was personable and a great leader and she really could have done anything. She’s currently on a scholarship to become a mathematics teacher which fills me with such pride.
One of the things I’m most proud of, and what I received the award for, is that I initiated a mathematics peer tutoring program where we paired year 11 students with year 7 students. We get them to develop their skills as explainers and communicators, and to help these young kids become confident mathematicians.
They could look up to someone four years older than them, wearing the same uniform, and they think I could be that or I could do that. It gives them such a great sense of what is achievable, and it’s ok if they’re struggling because if you’re struggling that means you’re learning something.
With my videos, I’ve been blown away with the response. People have written to me from country NSW, from other states, and I even had an email from someone in Brazil who said he was studying at university to become an engineer but after watching my videos he changed his degree to go into mathematics education and I was just blown away that someone who I’ve never met and will likely never meet, through the wonder of technology I can have an influence on them, it’s amazing.
Q. Do you have any advice for prospective and current educators thinking about becoming a maths teacher?
It’s really really hard work but it’s so worthwhile. There’s this quote that I love to come back to, ‘The best thing about teaching is that it matters,’ I can see the difference it makes to students every day when I put in the time and effort to come in early and prepare.
The best thing about teaching is that it matters, the hardest thing about teaching is that it matters every day! You can’t have an off day when you’re a teacher because you never know when a single conversation with a student could change their life. As a teacher you can give them hope and help them realise that whatever it is, whether their parents are splitting up or they’ve just lost someone close to them, the school believes in the student and the teachers think that they can achieve something. So that kid puts their left foot in front of their right foot and takes the next step. It’s such a noble profession and it makes such a difference.
With mathematics the big message I want to get across is that, to be a great mathematics teacher you have to be a person who is really keen to work and struggle alongside people. Mathematics teaching is 5 per cent mathematics and 95 per cent people. I was no star pupil in mathematics at school, in fact I really struggled and I came to realise that’s actually one of my assets as a maths teacher because I can empathise with people when they find something really difficult, I get it. As opposed to a lot of my maths teachers who said what do you mean? Isn’t it obvious? And when I said no, they said it was obvious to them so they didn’t know what kind of help I wanted and needed.
People who are personable and who can understand what it’s like to not get something, who keep working at it, who come up with another way of explaining it or another illustration for it, those are the kinds of people we need in mathematics education.
The 2017 Inaugural Teaching Fellows
Apply for the 2018 Teaching Awards
The Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards have been created with national charity Schools Plus to recognise and celebrate excellence in teaching and school leadership. In 2018, 12 outstanding educators will be selected to receive a $45,000 Teaching Fellowship, applications open on September 4 so if you would like to apply or to nominate a college or teacher who you believe has had a tremendous impact not only for their own students but on the education system more broadly, visit teachingawards.com.au