Meet the teacher: Mrs Sarah Gilmore

From escape rooms to Countdown competitions, Heywood Prep’s Head of Maths knows how to foster a love for her subject

Whether it’s fractions, long division or multiplication, many of us readily admit to feeling daunted by maths. But Sarah Gilmore is on a mission to change the way we think about her subject.

“You’ll often hear people saying ‘I’m not a maths person,’ but it isn’t some kind of magic gift,” she says, passionately. “Even as adults we get it into our heads that we can’t do maths, but with the right teaching, anyone can. I’m determined to change our negative perceptions and, so far, it’s working.”

Making maths fun

So, how is Mrs Gilmore developing a new generation of enthusiastic mathematicians at Heywood Prep?

“The more you can relate maths to things in the real world the better,” she says. “For a start, we do as much learning outdoors as possible. We’re lucky to have fabulous grounds here at Heywood, so we’ll bring the Year 3 children into the play area to hunt for different angles.

“We enjoy a lot of group work too – our Year 6 children recently mapped out a trip around Northern France. They had to choose their destinations and work out their mileage, then turn it into kilometres. Learning through collaboration and communication is so important.

“When our older students look at finances, we’ll take them out into Corsham and show them how to shop for themselves, Covid-permitting of course. The children might look confused if I talk to them about multiplying decimals, but if we make the concept about money and use the same digits, they instantly get it.”

A flexible curriculum

One huge advantage of the independent sector is that it gives us more flexibility when it comes to the curriculum. And last year Mrs Gilmore took full advantage of this, when she created a fun-packed day, devoted to igniting a passion for maths.

“I’m a huge fan of puzzles, so we ran our own escape room and invited other Wishford schools,” she explains. “We organised the children into groups of six and explained that they had to figure out the correct code before they could “break out” of the classroom. To find the right answer, they had to solve algebra problems and measure angles, which they loved. Later, we ran a Countdown-style competition too, playing numbers games. I was Carol Vorderman!

“The children love the excitement that comes with cracking a code, and I’ve even brought a safe into the classroom in the past. I set them a task and explained that, if they got it right, they’d be able to break into the safe. Of course, they succeeded and found some treats stashed inside.”

Back at home, Mrs Gilmore can often be found getting stuck into a puzzle too, and she’s not afraid to take on her own escape room challenge.

“During the holidays I always buy the newspapers, so I can tackle the Sudoku and code breakers,” she laughs. “I love escape rooms too, and have been to a few in Bath and Bristol. They are great fun, and that collaboration with friends almost takes you back to childhood. You forget everything else as you focus on your shared goal.

“I also sew clothes and costumes for children, and my mathematical skills are a huge help when it comes to making those meticulous measurements. It started out as a hobby at university, but I recently made 53 cheetah outfits for a production of The Lion King. They looked incredible, but it could have gone horribly wrong if I didn’t know how to cut to scale.”

Treating each child as an individual

Of course, we all learn at different rates, and figures may come more naturally to some children than others. So, how does Mrs Gilmore ensure everyone has confidence in the classroom?  

“It’s all about adapting the way you teach to suit each individual child,” she explains. “We learn in such different ways. When I went to school, we were told one way to tackle fractions, and you just had to keep practising that method. But while some children naturally ‘see’ numbers and hold them in their minds, others need a more practical or visual form of learning.

“They might benefit from having written, step-by-step instructions for example, or even from drawing a picture of the problem that they’re studying. Others benefit from a multi-sensory approach. In class we often use colourful plastic shapes called Numicon, which have holes representing numbers one to ten. They enable children to see and feel the connections between the numbers, and really understand how they fit together.

“We use a variety of resources to suit each child, and seeing those breakthrough moments is so exciting. It’s every bit as enjoyable as teaching an exceptionally gifted child something super complicated, beyond the primary curriculum.”

Setting up skills for life

When it comes to preparing our children for life beyond Heywood Prep, Mrs Gilmore says it’s impossible to underestimate the benefits that come with a happy start in maths.

“Believing you can do maths gives you so much confidence when you move to secondary school,” she says. “It makes it easier to interpret information, to collaborate and to solve problems in subjects like science too. And as we move into a more computer-based world, being literate in maths is more important than ever. From telling the time to working with money, these are essential skills that will set you up for life.”

You can meet Sarah and the rest of the teaching team on a personal tour of our school, or find out more about life at Heywood Prep here.