Eddie Woo changing the face of mathematics teaching with online lessons and 'infectious enthusiasm'
It is 6:00am on the first day of the school year. The sun is only just up, and the school rooster crows.
Cherrybrook Technology High School, in Sydney’s north-west, is the largest secondary school in New South Wales. But the teachers’ car park is empty. Save for one car.
Co-head mathematics teacher Eddie Woo is already at work.
“This is my 10th year teaching, and I love my subject,” Mr Woo said.
One of his priorities before the first bell rings is to set up his tripod and iPad in the middle of the classroom. It may not seem like the usual repertoire for a maths teacher, but this technology is Mr Woo’s core tool of the trade.
“For those of you that haven’t met me, I’m Mr Woo. In case you didn’t already know, I record my lessons. I record all of them. In fact, I’m about to record this one,” he explains to his new Year 11 extension maths class.
Universal appeal for teaching style
The father-of-three’s unique approach to teaching mathematics has not gone unnoticed.
Mr Woo is arguably the most famous teacher in Australia — a maths teacher by day and an internet sensation by night.
He started posting videos online in 2012 for a student who was sick with cancer and missing a lot of school.
Other students in the class then wanted to watch Mr Woo’s videos on his YouTube channel and website, so he started sharing them across the country and beyond.
Wootube now boasts more than 38,000 subscribers and has attracted almost 4 million views worldwide — and counting.
“I did some rough back-of-the-envelope calculations, as a maths teacher would, and if you add it up, that’s about 11 million minutes of people sitting there watching me run around in front of my whiteboard explaining concepts to my classes, which is just mind-boggling!” Mr Woo said.
Mr Woo brings ‘infectious enthusiasm’ to classroom
Businessman, benefactor and author of the much-quoted Gonski report into education reforms, David Gonski, is a big fan.
He was a judge for this year’s Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards and said Mr Woo’s application was a standout.
“There is no doubt that Eddie is conquering any fears of mathematics, making it something that we can all aspire to, and allowing it to be the brain matter, the fodder for the future,” Mr Gonski said.
He said his own life was changed by a couple of inspirational teachers, and he believed Mr Woo would also change the lives of students both in the Cherrybrook classroom and online.
“I would say that my maths career was in two parts — prior to meeting a wonderful teacher, and when I got a teacher who helped me not be tentative anymore. Then, the world became my oyster,” he said.
Cherrybrook Technology High School principal Gary Johnson said Mr Woo was helping address a chronic shortage of maths teachers in Australia, and making maths popular again.
“He brings an absolutely infectious enthusiasm for the subject. He has a capacity to simplify mathematics to a level where kids can really understand it,” Mr Johnson said.
‘He sucked me into maths’
Cherrybrook Technology High School Year 12 student Emily Shakespear said Mr Woo’s teaching style made maths irresistible.
“I don’t want to say it, but he sucked me into maths,” she said.
Owen Potter, who attends high school in the small central-western NSW town of Cobar, agreed.
“It’s difficult to understand how someone in Sydney can influence thousands of people across the whole country,” he said.
According to international numeracy and literacy testing of 15-year-olds, Australian students are lagging behind their peers in other developed countries.
A recently released report from the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed that Australia ranked only 25th of 72 participating countries in mathematics, with Australian students 28 months behind their peers in top-ranked Singapore.
“Both literacy and numeracy have received a lot of press … [because] the international testing regime has seen Australia slide marginally there,” Mr Johnson said.
“Probably the biggest discrepancy lies between the haves and the have-nots.”
‘Mathematics has been given a bit of a bad rub’
While Mr Woo is now on a mission to change the perception of maths, he did not always plan to become teacher, let alone a maths teacher.
“The subjects I chose [at school] were heavily weighted in the humanities, which is somewhat unusual for a South-East Asian migrant growing up in Australia,” he said.
“It wasn’t until I went to university and had to interact with maths at a different level that I really started to connect with it.”
Mr Woo’s parents migrated to Australia in the early 1970s for better education opportunities, and had high expectations for their youngest child.
A former student at the top academic selective school in NSW, James Ruse Agricultural High School, Mr Woo completed his Higher School Certificate in 2003, scoring an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of more than 98.
Being in the top 2 per cent of the state meant he could have done anything career-wise.
“My mum expected my brother to study something quite typical of Asian families, something like law,” Mr Woo’s sister, Kylie Woo said.
Mr Woo’s wife Michelle understood the family pressures.
“For Eddie to pursue teaching rather than … law or medicine, which he potentially could have done, was kind of like a slap in the face [to his parents],”she said.
“They’ve given up everything for him and [they’re thinking] he’s chosen to do something where he’s not using his full potential.”
Mr Woo said his desire to help students was partially born out of the racism and bullying he experienced as one of only a few children of Asian background in his suburban Sydney primary school in the early ’90s.
“There are definitely parts of my upbringing and the difficulties that I had at school that make me want to take those students who I can see are having difficulty… [and help them] come out of that experience,” he said.
‘Just a normal guy doing what he loves’
In April, Mr Woo won the 2017 University of Sydney Young Alumni Award for Outstanding Achievement.
In March, he was one of 12 Australian teachers honoured at the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards.
These awards were just the latest in a string of accolades Mr Woo has received in recognition of his contribution to teaching.
“Eddie’s just a normal guy just doing something that he loves, and so all this attention is a bit strange really,” Mrs Woo said.
Mr Johnson said he had no doubt about the value and popularity of his young head maths teacher.
“I’m worried that I might lose him! That bothers me, that he might get poached,” he said.
For Mr Woo, though, it is all about giving back to a system that gave him so much.
“I was raised in public education, I received a world-class education in principle for free, and so what I’m doing is just paying it forward,” he said.
Watch Channelling Mr Woo on Australian Story 8pm on ABC TV.