A-level maths teacher at Newham College talks of how teaching has changed as he retires after 40 years
- Credit: Archant
An A-level maths tutor retiring after 40 years has said it is “unfair” on students and teachers to say exams have become easier.
Charlie Carter, 71, who saw all his 35 students passing their A-levels last year, said goodbye to staff and students at a special event at the Stratford Campus of Newham College last week.
Reminiscing about his career at a farewell party, staff mentioned three students who called themselves ‘Charlie’s Angels’ because he inspired them to achieve.
Staff said he was so dedicated that, one day, he went into college despite being knocked him off his bike by a lorry.
In fact Mr Carter has never had a day off sick during term-time since starting at a school in Leeds and spending nearly all this career in Newham.
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He began at East Ham Technical College in 1972 before moving to Newham College’s campus in Welfare Road, Stratford, in 1995. He continued to teach part-time, 16 to 17 hours a week, after turning 66 in 2008.
Mr Carter said: “I carried on because I just love teaching. I had nice students and colleagues, there is a very good atmosphere at Newham College and I still find the subject an intellectual challenge. But I can’t carry on forever, though I used to think so, so 70 seemed a nice round number at which I thought I should retire – once a mathematician, always a mathematician.”
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So what is the secret to being a good maths teacher?
Mr Carter said: “I think you need to be sympathetic, and you have to stretch both the very good students while offering a hand to the weaker ones.
“It is about helping them to achieve the best possible grade that someone is capable of getting – for someone that might be an A* while for others a C is a good grade.”
Looking back to when he first started out in the early 1970s, the most striking change has been the development in technology, making it easier to teach, he said.
Mr Carter said: “We had no photocopy machine in those days. We used something called a banda machine, which many people today won’t even have heard of. It was a crude way of having to write everything up and duplicate it. You could not run off many copies, making it difficult to produce lots of material for the class.”
The importance cannot be underestimated as the ability to photocopy material has made it much easier to support students developing at their own level, he explains.
“Before you always had to go at one pace for the whole class. Now you can keep giving hand-outs with more difficult exercises for the fast students, allowing you more time to help the weaker ones. So in affect you have three or four classes within one classroom.”
Technology has also helped in other ways.
“We have smart boards instead of the old chalk boards. It makes it easy to move forward and backwards when explaining something, and students have the internet they can refer to.”
But, despite many years of rising grades nationally, Mr Carter does not believe exams have become easier.
He said: “The subject itself really hasn’t changed very much. But all these people keep saying exams have become easier. It’s really unfair to the kids who are working harder and to teachers.
“Students are working very hard to get into good universities, it is very competitive, but I think it always has been.
“I think the level of the exams is the same. The one thing that is different is that the exam board is now more helpful in freely giving you details of how they do their marking. It used to be top secret.
“What has made a big difference is that students now have exams twice a year, which keeps them on their toes and makes them work harder.
“The exam used to be after a two- year A-level course, which meant that especially some of the boys would leave it too late before putting the work in – leaving it too late to achieve good grades.”
Mr Carter also pointed out that students can now also repeat modules several times to improve their grades.
Otherwise Mr Carter has not seen a big difference between the sexes. He said: “Over the years I have had an equal number of girls and boys who have been very interested or intellectually very good.”
He has always worked in a very multicultural environment, but said language difficulties had not proved much of a barrier in maths.
He said: “I used to have a lot of Indian and Sikh students, now there are more Muslim and black students.
“But maths has a sort of universal language and any difficulties with English are not so much of a barrier for maths. Some of the best students I had came from Hong Kong and their English was very poor.”
While Mr Carter will continue to give some private tuition in maths, he will now turn his attention to his allotment near where he lives in Wanstead.