Helping trainee teachers

I often get asked by new mentors how best to help trainees on placement in their departments. It can be daunting for many reasons – you want them to excel, you want them to have a good and supported experience, but you may be worried about how much work you have to put in and how much time you actually (don’t) have. I thought I’d share some key ideas here.

  1. Time
    The most fundamental thing you need to give to a trainee is time. Time for them to develop, but also your own time to work with them. They are unlikely to get better if they are not being guided or being given advice and support with planning. There is a balance to be had here. Pointing them towards the shared resources folder on a computer isn’t nearly enough, but sitting and going over every single lesson plan in fine detail with them is far too much. They are adults and should be treated as though they can do a lot on their own once they’re enabled (although some trainees struggle with this initially!) – but they’re also new to this so they’ll need more support and reassurance that what they’re doing is right (or wrong) in the early stages. Allocating time on their timetable as ‘mentor meeting’ or similar is essential. Trainees typically struggle when their mentor meetings are ad hoc and therefore often on different days / times. This inevitably leads to weeks where there is no meeting at all. If you can, have lunch with them too as this can serve as an informal opportunity to raise or discuss any issues or queries.
  2. Give them a balance of classes
    Don’t give a trainee all the best behaved classes, or all the worst ones. Tougher classes are good to develop behaviour strategies that are less essential to survive in a class where the children rarely stray off task (although bad teaching can cause any class to do that!). A typical strategy is to give them one tougher group, and, if possible, a pair of the same year group to allow for easier planning / more obvious requirements for differentiation strategies (eg if you give a high ability group and a middle/ low ability group in the same year – the topics will likely be the same but the pitch will often be different). That of course assumes classes are setted in some way, which is still pretty common in maths.
  3. Hold them to account
    Some trainees can initially struggle with the difference between being a student, and being a trainee – they are to be treated as if they were an employee at the school, so if they are ever late / miss deadlines / slow to respond to emails etc, hold them to account for that. Similarly, whilst it’s expected that they will make mistakes in the classroom, if they do not respond to feedback – eg, you tell them they need to do something different, and they ignore it, then again, hold them to account for that.
  4. Give actionable feedback
    It’s easy to give feedback that makes sense to you, but no sense to a trainee. “Improve your behaviour management” for example, or “be more consistent with behaviour systems”, or “make differentiation more explicit” . All of these can feel clear, but all a trainee will be thinking is ‘how?’. So tell them how. Give them one or two specific actions that they can follow. For example “give students a choice of difficulty for the main task” or “ensure there are two extension tasks available – one exam style question and one algebraic generalisation question”. These are far easier to follow, especially if you provide examples too. Behaviour targets are particularly difficult to implement. How do I be more consistent? What is inconsistent at the moment? A good way to overcome this, is to ensure you are having regular conversations about behaviour. Scenarios and post-lesson discussions such as ‘when student x did this, I would have done this instead’ or ‘when student x did this, that warrants a C1’ etc. Trainees understandably struggle with knowing what actions in a class constitute suitable escalation of behaviour systems, especially when those systems are themselves sometimes nuanced and flexible (rightly or wrongly).
  5. Observations
    Try to give a mix of general full lesson observations and targeted foci. For example, you might watch a lesson and give feedback on all elements of it, but often that can be overwhelming for a trainee when you inevitably give and discuss ten points of improvement. Often it can be more effective to focus on only one or two particular things, eg behaviour, or quality of tasks. If you can film lessons, then seriously consider it. Watching a lesson back and being able to stop it and discuss is probably the most effective tool you can use to develop a trainee. Don’t be afraid to give live feedback during a lesson either. It’s much better to signal to a trainee that a student is off task, or that a student needs a target to keep them focused, or to praise a particular student for something they did during the lesson, than to tell them they should have done it afterwards. Obviously this requires forethought. Yelling at the teacher “John is off task, sort it out” is unhelpful! You could develop a simple signal system, or discreetly call the trainee over when students are on task etc. I’ve never understood why observers (myself included at one time) watch a lesson go to shit in those instances where they could have subtly intervened and helped avoid it with just a few simple signals. Obviously this isn’t always possible, but moreoften than not, a little live feedback can steer a lesson into a better direction. Remember too that if they are observing, they’ll need training on what to look at / for, and a post lesson discussion explaining the decisions the teacher made. Without those, the trainee will often become a simple spectator or even a pupil in the room.
  6. Planning and Marking
    Give trainees all the tips and shortcuts that you use yourself. We all know that marking policies in some schools are completely unwieldy – how do you manage it? Simple tips such as marking a little during a lesson, carrying around a multipen for those ridiculous marking in green / red / purple things you may be expected to adhere to, collecting books in with the page open that students were working on, in ‘confidence’ piles to help prioritise who needs the most marking etc. Those tips may seem trivial, but if they’re the difference between marking for an hour and marking for three, then they really are significant. One of the hardest lessons for a trainee is learning when a lesson is planned ‘enough’. Typically trainees will overplan a lesson, and refine it over and over again – then they despair that it took them 3 or 4 hours to plan. Learning that the lesson would have been almost, if not just as good, much earlier and that all that extra time is effectively time wasted, is hard. Lesson templates can be useful, as can giving trainees two or three websites to source material from rather than the seventeen billion that currently exist online. If they can’t find what they want in those two or three sites, then start creating. Early on, I frequently find a trainee who has spent upwards of two or three hours looking for a perfect resource that doesn’t exist. Trainees will need guidance and support on this – which is best done face to face if time allows for it. Email feedback can often end up being a constant back and forth of minor refinement in the wrong directions – costing an enormous amount of time for both trainee and mentor / host teacher. And don’t hold back with sharing resources. I find it less and less now, but a few years ago I would still come up against mentors who would refuse to hand over their resources because ‘I never had them when I trained – I had to do it all by myself’. Honestly, we need people to join teaching and stay, not leave because staff are trying to make it more difficult!
  7. Keep in touch with the trainee’s provider based mentor.
    No-one has a more vested interest in the success of a trainee than their university / school direct / scitt mentor. If you have any worries / concerns, or even better, want to celebrate the success of a trainee, let them know! It’s much harder to bring a trainee back from the brink than it is to intervene early on, even if it’s just something really minor. Similarly, it’s always great to hear that a trainee is getting on really well, particularly in those early weeks when they start teaching new groups.

Finally, remember that trainees all start from different places. It doesn’t matter how good or bad they are in their first lesson (within reasonable expectations!), what matters is that they respond to feedback and continue to get better and better.



Trig Identities #4 Double Angles

Starting with one of our ‘sum and difference’ identities:

\sin(x\pm y)=\sin(x)\cos(y) \pm \cos(x)\sin(y)

If we take \sin(2x) = \sin(x+x)

then, using the identity we started with:

\sin(2x)=\sin(x)\cos(x) + \cos(x)\sin(x)

\sin(2x)= 2\sin(x)\cos(x)

We can do it all again with cos:

\cos(2x) = \cos(x+x)

\cos(2x) = \cos(x)\cos(x) - \sin(x)\sin(x)


Now, recall that \cos^2(x) +\sin^2(x) = 1

\cos^2(x) = 1 - \sin^2(x)


\cos(2x) = 1 - \sin^2(x)-\sin^2(x)

\cos(2x) = 1 - 2\sin^2(x)

That’s one identity, now if we go back to the start and manipulate it all a bit differently:



\cos(2x)=\cos^2(x) - 1 +\cos^2(x)

\cos(2x)=2\cos^2(x) - 1

Finally, tan is pretty straight forward if you use the sum&difference identity, but we haven’t derived that yet, so here we go:


\tan(x + y) = \frac{\sin(x+y)}{\cos(x+y)}

Using the sin & cos sum/difference identities:

\tan(x + y) = \frac{\sin(x)\cos(y) + \cos(x)\sin(y)}{\cos(x)\cos(y)-\sin(x)\sin(y)}

= \frac{\sin(x)\cos(y) + \cos(x)\sin(y)}{\cos(x)\cos(y)-\sin(x)\sin(y)} * \frac{\frac{1}{\cos(x)\cos(y)}} {\frac{1}{\cos(x)\cos(y)}}

= \frac{\frac{\sin(x)\cos(y)}{\cos(x)\cos(y)} + \frac{\cos(x)\sin(y)}{\cos(x)\cos(y)} } {\frac{\cos(x)\cos(y)}{\cos(x)\cos(y)} - \frac{\sin(x)\sin(y)}{\cos(x)\cos(y)}}

\tan(x + y) = \frac{\tan(x)+\tan(y)}{1-\tan(x)\tan(y)}

Phew! Now, if x and y are equal, then just call them both x:

\tan(2x) = \frac{\tan(x)+\tan(x)}{1-\tan(x)\tan(x)}

\tan(2x) = \frac{2\tan(x)}{1-\tan^2(x)}


Trig Identities #3 Periodicity


You can hopefully see from the diagram above, that if we add 2\pi to our
angle \theta , we would come ‘full circle’ (ba-dum tish) and be back where we started from (think of it as adding 360 degrees if it makes you happier).


(\cos(\theta \pm 2\pi), \sin(\theta \pm 2\pi)) = (\cos(\theta), sin(\theta))

\cos(\theta) = \cos(\theta \pm 2\pi)

\sin(\theta) = \sin(\theta \pm 2\pi)

And since csc and sec are basically just utilisations of sin and cos, then they have the same property:

\csc(\theta) = \csc(\theta \pm 2\pi)

\sec(\theta) = \sec(\theta \pm 2\pi)

Now  \tan \theta has a periodic cycle half the size of \sin \theta , which you can perhaps visualise easily by studying their respective plots side by side:


and so :

\tan(\theta) = \tan(\theta \pm \pi)

\cot(\theta) = \cot(\theta \pm \pi)

Trig Identities #2 Pythagorean Identities

trig 2

Above is a quick refresher on each trig function. You only really need sin, cos, tan – but for convenience:

tan(\theta ) = \frac{sin(\theta )}{cos(\theta )}

(think SOHCAHTOA on the unit circle)

csc(\theta ) = \frac{1}{sin(\theta )}

sec(\theta ) = \frac{1}{cos(\theta )}

cot(\theta ) = \frac{1}{tan(\theta )} = \frac{cos(\theta )}{sin(\theta )}


Recall the formula of a circle is


and if our x and y coordinates (cos(\theta), sin(\theta)) lie on the circle (which they do) then:

cos^2{\theta } + sin^2{\theta } = 1

Take this identity and divide both sides by sin^2{\theta } :

\frac{cos^2(\theta )}{sin^2(\theta)} + 1 = \frac{1}{sin^2(\theta)}


We could instead have divded both sides by cos^2{\theta}  :

1+ \frac{sin^2(\theta )}{cos^2(\theta)} = \frac{1}{cos^2(\theta)}

1 + tan^2(\theta) = sec^2(\theta)


I’m a mathematician. Even writing it seems a little odd. I never identified as one until people started referring to me as such a few years ago. I’ve studied and/or taught mathematics pretty much my whole life,  which you’d think would automatically qualify – but calling yourself a mathematician is hard to do. Why? Because the very idea of what a mathematician is has become a polluted mess.

“A mathematician is someone who uses an extensive knowledge of mathematics in his or her work, typically to solve mathematical problems.”

That word extensive…

It seems the title of ‘mathematician’ is reserved by many people for those at a mystical peak of mathematical powers – they solve problems like super humans in split seconds, or gain insight into approaches to seemingly impregnable problems at first glance. Their capes wrestle against the wind as they flawlessly answer a random question posed to them on the spot. Calculator Man and Wolfram Girl, nothing can stop them! You cannot catch them out, and they’ll always pick you up on your errors. “Oh but you’re assuming we’re not working in ring theory then?”. Of course they know about ring theory. All mathematicians know EVERYTHING about ALL elements of maths. You can give them an exam paper from Cambridge on an obscure module about astrophysics and they’ll soon crack it. It’s just maths right? You’re a mathematician, you can do it. We’re all our own accountants, and we could do an actuary’s job for them if we wanted, after all, it’s what we do. Number stuff. All of it.

But what if that perception is a teensy bit unrealistic? What if we’re only good at some bits of maths? What if we’ve never even heard of some other bits? What if we just enjoy doing maths? Does that make us weak? A weak mathematician, or not even a mathematician at all, just an enthusiast at best. A novice. Does this apply to other areas? Let’s see. Is a runner an athlete? They’re not high jumpers though… Do all doctors do brain surgery? At what point do I go from playing the guitar to becoming a musician? Could it be that we have slightly unrealistic perceptions of the supernatural abilities of ‘a mathematician’? We seem to be a special case, and I’m pretty sure I know where it comes from.

Think for a minute about what gets emphasised in school – from year 1 to year 13. Answers and speed, answers and speed. Timed tests, tricks and ticks. ‘This’ gets you the answer, doing ‘this’ gets it quicker. This is right, so well done – but this is wrong, so this is bad. Too slow, time’s up, so it’s not good enough. It’s good that you thought about it, but you didn’t get there, sorry pal. I’m going to point at you and you need to answer this question immediately. I’m the person at the front, I’m your teacher, I get this stuff right all the time (because I have the answers).

Well I say it’s time to reject all that. If you do maths, you’re a mathematician. This elite superpower we’ve invented doesn’t exist, so let’s stop being silly. I am not part of that. I’m crap at some things in maths, I don’t understand some things in maths, and I don’t even know about all sorts of things in maths. I make mistakes, I can do some things quickly and some things slowly, and I don’t care. Sometimes I can’t solve a problem, sometimes I can. Some days I can do everything right, and some days I seem to do everything wrong. It doesn’t matter. I’m a mathematician.

My Favourite Number

I like to ask trainees what their favourite number is in mathematics, on their first day. This inevitably goes the same way every year.

T1: “seven”

Me: “why?’

T1: “i don’t know”

T2: “three – because i have three children”

T3: “nine – because i live at 9 blah blah close”

I have a purpose to this task – two in fact. The first is that this is a question children ask maths teachers all the time. They assume we all sit studying numbers all day (a few of us genuinely do!) and that we have determined which are the ‘best’ numbers, and (perhaps paradoxically more interestingly) which numbers are less interesting. The whole idea of interesting and less interesting numbers is encapsulated nicely by the interesting number paradox which states

“all natural numbers are interesting. The “proof” is by contradiction: if there exists a non-empty set of uninteresting numbers, there would be a smallest uninteresting number – but the smallest uninteresting number is itself interesting because it is the smallest uninteresting number, thus producing a contradiction.”

There’s a twitter account somewhere that capitalises on this idea, but I can’t remember it. If you know it let me know in the comments.

Anyway I’m digressing, the SECOND purpose of the exercise is to supply trainee maths teachers with cool answers so that they’re prepared for when they get asked the question “What is your favourite number?” or “which number is the best?”. If we give them some single digit thing and sentimental reasons, it’s a little unsatisfying for a curious mind isn’t it? I think so. So if you’re reading this and in desperate need for a more interesting number for those rainy days, here are a few of my favourites:

2520 – The lowest common multiple of 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10

103003 – known delightfully as a millinillion

Graham’s Number

1729 – Ramanjuan’s number (the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways – 1729 = 13 + 123 = 93 + 103

18446744073709551615 – the solution to the ‘rice and chessboard’ problem (fair enough, this might be a little hard to recall on the spot… but practice makes perfect!). This problem dates back to around 1000 AD, i’ll blog about it one day. It basically involves putting one grain of rice on square one, then doubling the amount of rice for each subsequent square, and finding the sum.

44488 – the first of five consecutive happy numbers. A happy number is defined by the following process:

“Starting with any positive integer, replace the number by the sum of the squares of its digits in base-ten, and repeat the process until the number either equals 1 (where it will stay), or it loops endlessly in a cycle that does not include 1.Those numbers for which this process ends in 1 are happy numbers, while those that do not end in 1 are unhappy numbers (or sad numbers).”


  • 6251 = 625
  • 6252 = 390625
  • 6253 = 244140625
  • 6254 = 152587890625
  • 6255 = 95367431640625
  • 6256 = 59604644775390625
  • 6257 = 37252902984619140625

Let me know more interesting numbers / your favourite number (and why)  in the comments. 🙂