‘I create a safe environment for them’: meet the hockey-playing teacher helping pupils shoot for maths success

Nicola SlawsonFri, 26 March 2021, 10:03 am

When Kiran Kaur Gill was growing up, her dad tried to convince her to take an interest in his favourite sport, hockey. “I managed to avoid it at all costs,” the secondary school teacher from Birmingham says. “I wasn’t involved in any sports until after I graduated. At that point, I’d returned to Birmingham only to discover that my friends hadn’t come back.”

One day, with nothing to do and looking for a way to pass the time, Gill tagged along to watch her sister play a hockey match. It was a chance decision that would change her life, sparking a lasting passion. “I ended up playing,” she says. “They didn’t have enough players so they gave me a stick and told me just to run around.”

Now a maths teacher at Holyhead school in Birmingham, she is hoping to inspire the next generation of hockey fans. Before the pandemic, she launched an after-school hockey club and brought in coaches from her own club, Barford Tigers, to help train the students. It’s early days yet as the club hasn’t managed to play a full school year thanks to coronavirus, but Gill is hopeful it will flourish now everyone is back at school.

  • Kiran Kaur Gill encourages girls to give things a go, and not to focus on being perfect

Getting girls to join has been a challenge. More than two thirds of the school’s pupils are south Asian, and south Asian girls, in particular, are much less likely to take up sport than their male or white counterparts.

“With the hockey club, I try to get the girls to bring along their friends and I talk to them about why it’s good to give it a go. It’s about getting through the first barrier, whether it’s that they are nervous, or worried about being seen as not being very good. Not being good seems to matter more to girls, I have found,” she says.

Improving confidence and self-belief is also something that is important when it comes to the subject she teaches. Maths is the kind of subject that many students fear or hate before even trying, says Gill.

“The attitude towards it can be quite negative, especially among the girls. I think girls tend to be perfectionists, which might be because of how they were brought up, or that they got complimented when things looked nice, or were perfect. So I really try to create a safe environment for them to try and to not know the answer. I put an emphasis on things not being perfect.”

Little things can help. Gill says she never compliments students on neat work or handwriting. “If you do that you’re just emphasising the importance of things looking pretty, whereas maths is a subject where you’ve got to make mistakes, and sometimes you’ve got to do pages and pages of working out. Maths is often about spotting patterns and you might get to the answer in a really long, roundabout way but it will help you learn.”

  • Having launched an after-school hockey club, Gill hopes more girls will take up the sport

Many of the students at the inner-city school come from disadvantaged backgrounds. About half are eligible for free school meals and 60% for the pupil premium. A quarter have special educational needs.

Related: Going for gold: how sports-loving teachers are getting students on the right track

To try to raise attainment levels among year 7 pupils, Gill launched an after-school maths mentoring club. Year 9 students in top sets apply to be mentors, and are given several weeks of training on how to support their mentees. They discuss different ways of explaining basic numeracy skills, learn role-play techniques and discuss strategies for building relationships so they can put any potentially nervous year 7s at ease.

“It is a responsibility as they have to help make the younger students feel comfortable, but it’s great for them too as, when they are explaining, it deepens their understanding. They learn a lot because they might know something, but have to work out how to explain it to their mentee,” says Gill.

Holyhead is the third school she has taught at – and all have been inner-city secondaries with high levels of deprivation.

She feels that one of the best things about launching the hockey club at the school has been watching the students come together. “They’re all from different year groups, friendship groups and abilities, and normally wouldn’t have anything to do with each other. But they give each other a chance.”

  • ‘If a pupil says they can’t do something, I find a different way for them to learn it,’ says Gill

Gill says she expects a lot from her students. “I think sometimes students have been allowed to give up too easily, but I don’t handle being told no very well. Every time a student refuses to do something because they say they can’t, I put a smile on my face and try to find a different way for them to do it. It’s also about telling them that they can succeed and that they shouldn’t just coast along without trying a bit harder.

“I always relate everything to their lives, which helps. For example, if they can’t do negative numbers I will talk about [people] owing money and suddenly they understand.

“I also like all the same kind of music as them, so that has helped. I think I’ve built up a good relationship with them and, in turn, they have a good relationship with me.”

Asked whether her hockey playing has influenced her maths teaching, she pauses before saying: “You’re only as strong as your weakest player, so never give up on the weakest students.

“It sounds corny, but we believe in each other,” she adds.

In teaching every day is different, and so is every teacher. Discover 100 teachers across the country, shaping lives. And if you’d like to know how you can bring your individual passions to a job in teaching, head to Get Into Teaching to find out more.

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