Maths teacher hopes to use his great track record to inspire pupils
- Credit: Matthew Usher
A Nigerian athlete recently appointed as King's Lynn Academy's head of maths has said he will use his talents on the running track to help west Norfolk win the race for the best mathematical teaching.
Sylvester Juwe said he wanted to use his new leadership role not only to inspire a new generation of maths whizz-kids at his own school but also to encourage high-quality teaching of the subject across the borough.
The east London-born teacher, who qualified for last year's London Olympics before having to pull out due to sickness, was taken by his parents to Nigeria as a young child, where he went to school and university before returning to the United Kingdom.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone who is now a maths teacher and training to represent Nigeria in next year's Commonwealth Games, he revealed that as a child he was not good at maths or sport.
'I really loved athletics but I was not very good!' the 35-year-old said. 'In my secondary school I was excited to come seventh, because it meant I beat someone.'
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He also said he found maths 'very challenging' – but that his Year Six tutor helped him to overcome those problems. In particular, he taught Mr Juwe that the key to success was to have the determination to solve mathematical problems. 'This teacher told me that, one day, I would teach him maths,' Mr Juwe said.
And, sure enough, he helped his old school teacher solve a complicated data problem when Mr Juwe was studying maths at the University of Benin.
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'This is someone who made a difference to my life,' said Mr Juwe.
'When I had that encounter with my old teacher at university, it made me want to make a difference to the lives of children. I knew I wanted to be a teacher.'
After teaching in Nigeria for a few years, Mr Juwe came to this country to complete the qualifications he needed to teach in Britain.
He taught maths at schools in London and Dover before moving to the east of England when he won a place to study for a Master of Education degree in maths at Cambridge University.
Following the move he took a temporary job at what was the Neale-Wade Academy, in March, before landing the top job in the mathematics faculty at King's Lynn Academy.
Today, he tries to use the same methods his maths tutor used to teach him the subject.
'Maths has a lot to do with beliefs and culture,' he said. 'If you can show children how to solve a mathematical problem, it helps to develop their problem-solving skills and it makes them determined to solve every problem – and that transcends into real life.'
Mr Juwe said that his technique when confronted with a difficult problem – in maths or teaching – is to identify it, research it and find ways to overcome it. 'For example when I was doing my Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), I found it difficult to handle behaviour in the classroom because it is different to Nigeria,' he said.
'That made me research how to deal with behaviour and, in that aspect, I have now become outstanding.'
It is the same tactic that has taken him from last place on the track and field to the head of the queue to represent one of the best-performing athletic nations on earth.
'For athletics, I was very skinny at first,' Mr Juwe said. 'I didn't have the strength to run fast – so, I worked on my strength. I look at where I'm weak and try to mitigate my weaknesses.'
Despite not believing that he was very good, Mr Juwe was inspired by American athlete Quincy Watts' gold- medal winning performances in the 400m relay and 400m events at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
'He made me start to aspire to be an Olympian,' Mr Juwe said.
Mr Juwe, whose current training regime includes a mixture of long runs, sprints, treadmill runs, sprint walking and strength-building, ran for his university team for the first time in 1999 before qualifying to represent Nigeria in the All-Africa Games in 2003.
He set his sights on going to the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 but, unfortunately, had to focus on completing his studies.
'Last year, I gave myself the huge target to make the Olympic Games in London,' he said. 'I worked hard and ran some trials and even qualified for the 4x4 relay.'
However, in a cruel stroke of luck, sickness prevented him from taking up his place – but he was called back for a demonstration 4x4 relay event, where no medals are awarded.
His team came third but, more importantly, it gave Mr Juwe the chance to experience his dream of taking part in an Olympic event.
He said the skills he has developed as an athlete are the same ones he has needed to succeed in the classroom – determination, problem-solving and team-working.
'I have been asked to lead a faculty in an area I have a great passion in,' he said. 'I want to try and help influence how maths is taught on a wider level in west Norfolk.'