Case Study: Functional Skills Maths Teacher

Neil Barton

Neil Barton is a full time teacher in Further Education (FE). He teaches maths in a large FE college in Manchester. Qualifying two years ago, this is the second teaching role he has held; the first being with a private training company. Previous to this he has worked in grounds maintenance and retail. His interest in teaching was sparked when he began training apprentices.

Can you tell us a little about your current role in FE?

My job title is Functional Skills (Maths) Tutor. I work full time which includes 24 hours ‘contact time’, or teaching hours. I teach maths in the Automotive, Construction and Engineering (ACE) department. This means in practice that I need to tailor my lessons toward these subjects, and that I’m learning a lot about ACE at the same time!

What are your key interests?

A key area of interest is encouraging the different types of people on study programmes to engage with maths, particularly NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) students. Tailoring sessions to tie in with vocational subjects can really support this. I enjoy taking on a pastoral role too.

Do you have any other roles or responsibilities?

There’s a lot of admin involved! Which takes up a significant amount of time. I’m unofficially the ‘go-to person’ for functional skills in our department, so I tend to get a lot of questions and enquiries. I’m often the person called upon when there’s a problem. As I’m fairly new to the role, I’ve taken time to make sure I know what I’m doing, where I need to be and how everything works.

Can you tell us about your experience in FE?

I enjoy it, although it is a unique industry. After two years of full time teaching I’ve learnt that being adaptable is important, as things change often and quickly. There have been cuts, and in some ways as FE overlaps with compulsory and Higher Education, it is becoming less defined. Personally-speaking, it can be a good thing. My role is varied and so is the cohort. I feel like I’ve got freedom to try out new ideas in order to support learners, and being placed within ACE has challenged me to make my sessions engaging in quite a specific way.

How do you find the FE sector in terms of working culture?

I work in a large FE college, so it can be a challenge as the various channels of admin and support are spread out and not always immediately accessible.  I’ve strived to build good working relationships with the different support staff, which means things run more smoothly. I know the other teaching staff in my department well, and we offer mutual support.  Beyond that I don’t have a massive amount of contact with other departments. I’m able to work fairly independently, which I enjoy. I have found that I’ve become more self-reliant over the last two years, solving problems as I come across them rather than seeking support in the first instance.

What prompted your move into FE?

When I worked in grounds maintenance, I saw how many of the apprentices were struggling with maths. I’ve always been interested in the subject and it made me think. I did some research and found out about training routes. I also found out that there was a shortage of male maths teachers, and that it was a skill I could use in other countries (as I was considering moving overseas at the time). I spent some time in a college to see what it was like…..and that was that!

How has working in FE helped your career?

It’s given me a great deal of confidence as I’ve worked hard to ‘learn the ropes’. I feel like I’m doing a good job. It’s also given me an insight into different sectors of work I knew nothing about. I’ve worked with such a diverse range of people too. In terms of professional development there are a wide range of opportunities that the college offer staff, so I feel like there are plenty of paths I could take to continue my growth.

What have you enjoyed most about your job in FE?

Overall I feel like I’m helping people and doing something I enjoy, which in turn helps me to be a better teacher. Watching learners grow and progress gives me a lot of job satisfaction. Of course the holidays aren’t too bad either!

Do you face any particular challenges?

Every teacher has to deal with behavioural challenges and I’m no different. Quite often things that are going in students’ lives have a big impact on how they may be in the classroom. It’s important to remember that social and emotional issues can really affect students.

Have you got any advice for other academics/professionals planning to work in FE?

My top three tips are - spend some time in the classroom. FE is a unique environment and the only way to know if it’s for you is to experience it first-hand. Then, speak to other people in the industry and find out about their experiences. Finally, spend some time researching what’s happening in the sector. Politically and economically speaking things are changing rapidly – this can mean changes in the way FE operates.

What are the top three reasons you chose to work for your current institution?

It’s a big organisation, so I knew there would be plenty of opportunities for progression. It’s also based in the city I grew up in, and it was important to me that I invested in my own community. It’s also got a great reputation.

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