UKEdMag – Time to Change: from PE Chic to Maths Geek by @RichardColes10

Changing subjects: From PE to Maths

The Back Story

As an educator it was never set in stone that I would teach just one subject for my whole career. In reality just one freak injury whilst playing rugby would change my life forever, and it has turned out for the better. In 2009 I was a teacher of Physical Education, second in department, and I was playing rugby for Maidstone RFC. A serious neck injury that left me with three fractures in C5 could have cost me my life. Instead this became the start of something bigger.

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I had already thought about teaching another subject as the time of a PE teacher can be limited, and I had always enjoyed teaching lessons within different departments and challenging myself to learn something new. With the worries of my injury and uncertainty of full recovery I had to start to think about my future. This led to a professional conversation with David Day, headteacher of Wrotham School. The opportunity to be a maths teacher with a little PE was suggested and off to interview I went! I was asked to deliver a year 9 maths lesson about algebra and simplifying expressions. This was my first ever experience of teaching maths and what a baptism of fire it was. I can’t say that the lesson was the most conventional I have ever delivered, but I was trying to impress; enter ‘Café Coles’! Children were asked to create a menu and each item they sold had an algebraic expression attached, the pupils then took orders from their menu and aimed to simplify the requests linking into group work.

It was clear that I was very raw, as would most people looking to change subjects, and I was totally honest about this during interview. However, I had displayed creativity and a passion to improve myself and others around me.

I believe this interview honesty is a key part to moving beyond your subject, or moving into leadership – there is no point pretending to have all the experience, only to impress with my enthusiasm, generic teaching skills, and my own ability to learn. So, I was offered the job and opportunity with one requirement: that I would complete a Masters level course in Mathematical Application and Teaching at the Institute of Education, London.

The First Days

I was very nervous as it got closer to September, but after 5 hours teaching that first day I had to just get on with it. As long as you have a passion for educating young people you can apply your skill and enthusiasm to any subject area. After all, it is all about changing lives.

The first year was extremely difficult and learning a new subject while on a full teaching timetable meant I had to treat this as a second NQT year. I strived to become better, and there were lessons that required improvement at the beginning, but it was moving forward from this that made me who I am today. If you are considering changing subjects then you have to be totally committed to self-improvement and dedicated to giving up your own time to learn and develop. There will be times when you think about giving up, but if you have the desire to keep doing better then this will keep you going. It all paid off for me when the children I taught secured their grade C’s and I received outstanding from Ofsted for a multiplication lesson with bottom set year 11.


Next step: middle leadership. Now in my 5th year teaching, and 3rd year of maths, I was ready to step up to the next challenge. I applied to Aylesford School Sports College as the Second in maths, was offered the job, and set myself to the task of improving progress in KS3 (moving a lower ability cohort from Level 3 to 4). With this achieved, and through leading changes in the curriculum, the management journey took off. By November 2014 I had been promoted to Head of Maths, my biggest challenge yet, with a need for development of the new curriculum and a demotivated group of year 11 pupils sitting on 27% A*-C.

Things needed to change rapidly, and by December there was a full plan of carefully selected topics to promote progress in the lead up to summer and the 2015 final result showed significant improvements – and we are only just starting. In the present I have built a department, improved standards, and developed the new curriculum for a subject which was once alien to me. It has not been plain sailing but my career did change direction for the better. When I look back I know I found it hard but had family and colleagues who believed in me and it goes to show that no matter what you are faced with you can overcome.

If you have the drive and determination to succeed then the subject you teach does not matter: education is about children learning, and if you can inspire and engage then you can teach any subject. You have to be prepared for a bumpy ride, but it is a challenge that can change a whole career and although my choice was unexpected, I am a better person for the changes I have made – and a better teacher. Top tips for moving outside your comfort zone

  • See if you can be assigned to a subject mentor
  • Attend subject enhancement courses
  • Have a clear vision for what you want to achieve
  • Be open/honest about your limitations (and seek help!)

Richard Coles @RichardColes10 is currently Head of Mathematics at Aylesford School Sports College. Previously he was voluntary Assistant head of house in an outstanding rural secondary in Kent teaching Mathematics and Physical Education. He started his NQT year becoming Second in Physical Education after 6 months (2008).

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