A former primary school principal, Mr McGuirk in his retirement assumed many roles in the local parish, but in his “spare” time wanted to support his granddaughter, Tahlia. When she was in Stage 3 at St Mary’s, Mr McGuirk worked with a former St Mary’s teacher, Lynn Redding (now at Holy Name, Forster) to implement the Australasian Problem-Solving Mathematical Olympiads (APSMO) at St Mary’s.
“Even though Tahlia completed secondary school two years ago, Phil continues to drive the Maths Olympiad program at St Mary’s,” said primary co-ordinator Mary-Jean Cooper. “By our calculations, Phil has been assisting the school with the Maths Olympiad for about 10 years.”
During his decade-long commitment, Mr McGuirk has worked on a weekly basis during Terms 2 and 3 with teams of students from Years 3-6. He organises resources, plans and delivers weekly lessons to develop mathematical problem-solving skills, administers the five test papers each year, and provides feedback to all.
“He has also voluntarily worked to assist teachers in understanding the program, how it relates to the curriculum and ways they can support the Maths Olympiad competition in their own classrooms,” Ms Cooper said. “Phil’s passion for maths is only bettered by his commitment to the students and his genuine desire to share his knowledge and skills in order for them to experience the challenges and successes that will help them to grow as students and as individuals.”
During McGuirk’s involvement with the Maths Olympiad, St Mary’s achievements have grown. The school’s maths team has gradually improved its Olympiad results and in other measures of mathematics such as NAPLAN, and the Newcastle Permanent and UNSW competitions. “We have had students achieve 100 per cent on individual papers and have recorded students in the top 10 per cent of Australia and New Zealand,” Ms Cooper said.
For his part, Mr McGuirk says during the last few years of his teaching career when he was “classless”, he had the opportunity to work with students who had displayed an ability to look at mathematics from a different view.
“I felt that many students were turned off mathematics because it was not challenging enough and they could not see the fun of challenging their minds in bringing together all the skills they had been taught to solve problems,” he said .”With time on my hands I offered to assist when my grand-daughter was coming to the end of her primary years and I could see she was not being challenged and thought of maths as a boring subject.”
He likens the enjoyment of volunteering to the enjoyment of teaching. “It’s when the ‘lightbulb moment’ arrives and the eyes of the student lights up and they can proudly acclaim, as they do very loudly sometimes, ‘I get it’,” he said. “The self-esteem of the students is greatly enhanced when they can see how and what they can achieve.”
Mr McGuirk is happy to volunteer his time and expertise because he loves to see the achievements of the students and the development of their individual personalities. “To see the child who comes from the silent loner to the confident and mature person is great reward,” he said. “I get a great feeling when I see these ‘Olympians’ move on to high school where they go on to bigger and better challenges.”