Important Lessons Worth Sharing: Speakers for Schools 2023

There are certain things too important not to share

One day, I walked into a state school as a speaker from Speakers from School; I was greeted by the school’s point of contact, who took me on a tour of the school. Before my talk, I asked them out of curiosity “Do you teach A-Level Mathematics here?”. The answer was sadly no. Those who are interested in pursuing this subject must go elsewhere. Twenty minutes later, I started my talk to the 100+ pupils. I told them that I was a professional mathematician, President of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, and then I pointed out of the window and said, “Do you see the house over there? That is where I was born! I am like you, I come from here!”. The whole assembly hall started screaming and crying. I told them, “You don’t need anybody’s permission to be a great mathematician”. In life, there are certain things too important not to share. My name is Professor Nira Chamberlain, I am a multiple-award-winning mathematician; this is my story.

I was born in the inner city of Birmingham. My parents came to the UK from Jamaica in the 1960s and were part of the Windrush Generation. As a kid, I was into maths and logic, but my career schoolteacher encouraged me to become a boxer. However, my dad disagreed, stating “You don’t need anybody’s permission to be a great mathematician”. This started me on a journey of running up and down Europe, solving complex real-world problems using mathematics.

In 2014, before I won any awards or recognition for my mathematical career, I received a yellow-coloured letter from somebody called Robert Peston! He asked me to become one of their speakers for a charity called Speakers for Schools. I thought this guy shared the name of the then-BBC journalist. Little did I know it was “The Robert Peston” and its speaker’s roster were some serious eminent individuals from all different fields and that they were happy going into state schools to give free talks.

I thought this is a brilliant idea, as state schools would not normally have access to these individuals. The question: why me, had to be put aside, and I had to get on with the programme.

I accepted the role, but I found speaking to 100, sometimes 200+ pupils was challenging, especially if I was going to talk about mathematics. Upon finishing my first talk, a pupil asked me, “Sir, so what is the point of mathematics?”.

I quickly realised that if this was going to work, I had to connect to my audience (the pupils) and not just talk at them as if I were delivering a mathematical lecture. My talks had to be multimedia with music, video, live demonstrations, and mathematical simulations. In terms of mathematical simulation, I would write and build bespoke mathematical simulations just for my Speakers for Schools talks. For example, Jack Sparrow, a simulation of the Pirate of the Caribbean, searching for gold on a deserted island.

Also, if this was going to work, I had to show them my personal story, passion, enthusiasm, vulnerabilities, challenges, and victories. Ultimately, I had to tell them that “a mathematician is not necessarily someone who finds mathematics easy; a mathematician is someone who sees a problem and never ever quits; that is a mathematician!” This was followed by my mathematical adventures, whether it be using maths for international rescue, writing a computer virus to make a Formula One car go faster, or saving Aston Villa!

This personal and multimedia approach worked, and I am always keen to hear feedback from the teachers, as this gives me clues on how to improve and/or evolve my talks. Over the past 10 years, the pupils have changed, the world has changed (i.e. pre-, during and post-pandemic), and my talks have undergone at least four changes. The talks I would have successfully done in 2015 would not work for today’s pupils!

So far, I have given over 30 talks, and I am proud to hold the following records:

  1. Giving the 1000th Speakers for Schools talk
  2. Giving the first Live Speakers for School talk after the Pandemic

Not only have my talks inspired and changed lives, it has also changed me. Before, Speakers for Schools, I never knew that I would be good at mathematics communication, now, I am a recognised mathematical communicator giving talks all around the world. For example, in 2018, I was invited to participate in an international mathematics communication competition, which I won and was named “World’s Most Interesting Mathematician!”.

In conclusion, ultimately, our job as speakers of Speakers for Schools is to inspire the pupils of state schools, to show them possibilities and dreams of their future selves. Like the title of the blog state, there are certain things too important not to share. Teachers have contacted me either through Speakers for Schools or via social media to inform me of my talks’ impact on their pupil’s outcomes. One example is pupil Tom who heard my talk in a school in Wolverhampton one year, he then went on to do his A-levels and made it into Oxford University to study mathematics. My dad’s words, “You don’t need anybody’s permission,” are not just for those aspiring to be mathematicians; it is for everybody. My dad’s statement is an example of something too important not to share.

Professor Nira Chamberlain OBE