Now acting deputy principal at Brisbane Bayside State College, a distinguished 17-year academic career involving research, grant and paper writing and global jet-setting has been replaced with public high school maths/science teaching – and Mathews could not be happier.

Having studied science and gained a degree at the University of Melbourne, Mathews did her honours in Genetics, then later a PhD through the University of Sydney, before her post-doctoral studies in chlamydia took her to Memphis, Tennessee and San Francisco, before she settled in Brisbane working at QUT in its School of Life Sciences.

The steady arrival of her three young children at the turn of the century saw her working part-time as a research fellow and eventually volunteering in her children’s classrooms in the mid 2000s, where she worked with literacy groups and maths groups before becoming one of the CSIRO’s Scientists in Schools.

“I just found that being in the classroom gave me a real buzz and being around teachers gave me a real buzz,” Mathews says.

“And then a principal I met, after I chatted to her about some of my observations, just said ‘you have to come into education, Sarah’ – and it’s the best decision I’ve made.” 

Having completed her DipEd in 2008, given her background,  it wasn’t long before Mathews began to look at data and analyse NAPLAN trends, and she soon determined that many of her students had limited numeracy ability.

Teaching across Years 8, 9 and 10 in one year gave her a unique first-hand insight into their progress.

“So I could see what the Year 10s couldn’t do, what they should have been able to do intuitively and so I could backward map that to what I was doing with the 9s and the 8s.”

Mathews set about making numeracy everybody’s business at her school.

“I suppose you can’t get the academic out of me, and so I did some reading, I’m always researching ... and there’s an education researcher at the University of Queensland, who had done some work around ‘numeracy moments’, which was essentially outside of the maths curriculum.

“It’s just looking within ‘where can you take something that’s linked to numeracy and just be able to expand what you’re doing in the classroom?’.

“So for example in a HPE class, and I can link that back to proportional thinking, the kids are learning about heart rates and it’s about ‘can we make a learning moment out of that?’, can we then say ‘let’s have the kids calculate and do the ratios?’

“So normally when you do a heart rate, you do it over 15 seconds, so the teacher then, can explicitly teach how that 15 seconds was a quarter of the minute, which then meant they could work out the beats per minute based on that.

“It’s things that we as adults do intuitively in our heads, but a lot of students don’t and they can miss that opportunity to then be explicitly taught something that might seem quite simple to us but for them, they haven’t actually put it together.”

Using the evidence base behind Education Queensland’s ‘think board’ strategy, which breaks solving problems into four steps– ‘see, plan, do and check’– Mathews has worked with maths teachers at Brisbane Bayside State College to expand their ability to develop the students’ metacognition in maths, as well as their own in problem solving. and built that into the numeracy and maths program within the school.

“So as a result of an accumulation of what we’ve been doing, our NAPLAN results have improved steadily since 2013, and in fact, if we take the five-year trends, Queensland moved eight points and I believe we moved 26 points, and had a greater improvement compared to the nation in numeracy at Year 9.

Mathews’ efforts have not gone unnoticed, and recently she was one of 12 recipients presented with a 2017 Commonwealth Bank Teaching Award.

She says it’s recognition of the work the school as a whole has been doing.

“And it is nice to be recognised personally for the hard work and the risk I took of changing careers, that that has paid off.”

The award features $30,000 to be used for boosting teachers’ capability, particularly at school.

“And there’s also some funds for my own professional learning, which to me is critically important so that I can keep at the forefront and drive that evidence-based learning within the school,” she says.

It’s no surprise that this gift to education from academia would eventually outgrow the walls of just one classroom, and it seems many more are destined to benefit from her enthusiasm, knowledge and guidance.

“I’ve really struggled with leaving the classroom, because I really love the classroom, but the teachers and heads of department are now my class – so I’m enabling them to learn and then improve what they’re doing within their own classrooms.”