Maths teacher Alex Kelly with her arms around two decoratively dressed alpacas in front of a mountain.
Image: Alex Kelly

With an engaging teacher, maths can be for everyone, says this young tutor

13 Apr 2023

Galwegian Alex Kelly talks to about her experience tutoring teens in maths while traveling around Peru and Colombia.

Alex Kelly thinks maths is a little bit like learning a new language. It can be a love-hate subject, both from a learner’s point of view as well as a teacher’s.

Even for people who enjoy maths, it can be a challenge to get to grips with. As a maths tutor to young people who is herself young enough to recall her school days, Kelly is well-placed to empathise with some of the complicated feelings people have around numbers.

‘My love of teaching comes from the combination of two of my passions – helping people and of course the mathematics itself. There’s no satisfaction quite like solving a challenging question’

I must put my hands up here and confess that my own feelings around maths and maths teachers are complicated.

I was never any good at maths in school, and unlike Kelly, who grew to love the subject after initially struggling with it, I never found a way in with maths.

The memories of sitting dumbstruck over theorems come flooding back when Kelly mentions the teacher who helped her find out that she actually quite liked maths.

Ireland is a small country and it turns out Kelly went to the same secondary school as I did and had the same maths teacher.

“Mrs Hanley in Salerno Secondary School commanded the room with her mathematical ability. I remember thinking how I wanted to be as competent as she was,” she says.

Kelly, who based on my admittedly very rudimentary calculations, was around two years behind me in school. She was able to get on board with Mrs Hanley’s enthusiasm even if I stubbornly refused to.

Maths is so difficult to teach that even a skilful, engaging teacher like Mrs Hanley cannot help every student who struggles. But her voice booming out into the corridor as she took 20 teenage girls through their trigonometry homework was certainly enough to wake up even the sleepiest students at nine o’clock in the morning.

Kelly is arguably a great example of a young person who responded brilliantly to gentle encouragement from a teacher.

‘I truly believe that maths is for everyone. Maths impacts upon every part of our lives, it is one of the fundamentals of our society’

Maths can be fun

Now aged 26, Kelly is firmly of the belief that maths is rewarding – and even fun. It’s something she tries to instil in her own students; she tutors with the Irish-founded online school Breakthrough Maths that was founded during the pandemic to provide maths grinds for small groups of students from fifth class right through to Leaving Cert level.

Kelly teaches 12 classes a week, and she finds that each age group requires a different teaching approach.

“The younger years require animation, the middle age group requires constant engagement and the Leaving certs demand to be challenged.”

The number one thing for maths teachers is engagement, Kelly believes. (This is no doubt Mrs Hanley’s influence showing through.)

Like her one-time mentor, she tries to show her students how much she loves her subject and how useful it can be for life beyond the classroom and exams.

“I find taking a bigger picture view and relating the problems to real life can help foster the attention needed,” she says.

She enjoys figuring out how to engage her students and help them become more confident when tackling maths.

“My love of teaching comes from the combination of two of my passions – helping people and of course the mathematics itself. There’s no satisfaction quite like solving a challenging question.”

With Breakthrough Maths, a lot of the teaching is done outside of school hours, so the service functions as an online grinds school. Often, it’s the case that students simply need to spend more time on learning maths.

“I am a believer that maths is for everyone but each student may need to look at the problem from a different perspective,” says Kelly.

“Maths is cognitively difficult; if you’re not 100pc engaged it is easy for a student to switch off instead of going through the mentally taxing process of solving the question.”

A rewarding career

Kelly empathises with the difficulties students face when trying to figure out complex maths problems.

“I was frustrated by maths in the beginning,” she admits. But she persisted, and now finds that maths has influenced her career decisions. After finishing secondary school, she studied economics and finance at University College Dublin. She worked with EY for a while, then travelled to South America while she taught maths classes to Breakthrough Maths students.

She thinks teaching has made a huge difference to her life, with the skills she has picked up from her experience helping students also helping her as she figures out her future career path.

“It has been an amazing experience getting to travel, meet new people, experience new cultures and focus on my own personal growth while having the security of a job I love,” she says.

“Teaching has afforded me the opportunity to improve my public speaking, communication and leadership skills.”

For her next move, Kelly is planning to transition into a client-facing role in the investment banking sector. It’s a little bit different from teaching teenagers, but it requires her to be engaging and to know her numbers.

She is planning to move to London to pursue investment banking, and she says she is happy that she has been able to develop herself and her skills by teaching.

Kelly thinks it is very important for young women like her who love maths to pass that enthusiasm on to others to improve women’s representation in STEM.

“There is a great mix of students in the classes I teach and more young women are now studying maths-related subjects in college. Accessibility is not an issue anymore but representation is. I believe that the more women we see at the highest levels in science, technology, engineering and maths, the more women will be inspired to follow in their footsteps.”

“I truly believe that maths is for everyone. Maths impacts upon every part of our lives, it is one of the fundamentals of our society.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea joined Silicon Republic in 2021 as Careers reporter, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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