What's not to love about Eddie Woo?

Australia’s most famous teacher on staying humble, being a servant … and maths

Celebrity maths teacher Eddie Woo confesses he didn’t go into maths teaching because it was his first love or what he was best at. At school he preferred English and history because they told compelling stories about people.

But he changed his planned career path from the humanities to maths when he discovered that there was a severe shortage of maths teachers.

“I came into my profession with a servant mentality.” – Eddie Woo

Now he believes the fact he went into an area of his profession that wasn’t his obvious area of skill is a powerful witness to the servant type of motivation that can make a Christian stand out in the workplace.

“I think of 1 Peter 3:15 where it says you should always be ready to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that’s in you. And I think Peter’s command implies that you’re going to live in such a way that you have a conspicuous hope that makes people ask questions,” he tells Eternity.

“They look at your life and they say ‘your life makes no sense at all unless you have a hope that I don’t know about – I want to know.’ So for me I want to live in a way that begs the question and then I can supply the answer.”

Woo has become Australia’s most famous teacher since being named the 2018 Australian Local Hero of the Year and a Top 10 Finalist in the Global Teacher Prize. He’s also the star of his own YouTube channel, WooTube, where he makes maths fun and accessible for more than 500,000 subscribers.

With City Bible Forum’s Life@Work conferences, Woo is currently touring Australia speaking to workers about how the Christian faith makes believers distinctive in the workplace.

Woo shares with Eternity that his choice to teach maths, not his preferred subject, has often prompted questions about why on earth he did that.

“And the short answer is I came into my profession with a servant mentality. I am here to be useful – I’m not here to do the thing that I love most; I’m here to do the thing that’s most useful and most beneficial to others,” he says.

“And the reason I did that is because my Lord is someone who didn’t come to be served, he was someone who came to serve – I mean, he didn’t go to the place where it was comfortable.

“Jesus said it’s the sick who need to come to the doctor, not [those who are] well. So, for me, that desire to go into an area I wasn’t particularly gifted in was directly out of my Christian priorities.”

“We have very different priorities because we have a very different purpose.” – Eddie Woo

When Woo started recording his maths lessons for a sick student six years ago, the public school maths teacher didn’t think he was doing anything special. When these “WooTube” videos gained international attention, he at first couldn’t understand the online phenomenon that has garnered more than 13 million views.

“After doing this for a couple of years, people were starting to watch and I had many people say to me – ‘what do you do that’s special that people are watching?’ For a few years my answer was ‘I don’t know, I really have no idea why it’s attracting people, it doesn’t seem exceptional to me.’”

“I’ve worked with some incredibly experienced teachers and I viewed myself as a bit of a novice in life in general but especially about my teaching.

“But I’ve come to realise that one of the characteristics, which I think is an asset to me, is I do teach mathematics very much the way that humanities teachers teach – I’m looking for the stories. I’m looking for a narrative that gives people a compelling reason to want to care about something.

“I think that’s what every good story does and then it takes you on a journey where things click together and there’s surprises and there’s things that will make sense later on. It’s about weaving a story that resonates with my students so I very much lean on that humanities background to teach that way.”

In his talk for Life@Work, Woo suggests three ways that Christians should stand out in the workplace.

“The first thing is that Christians in the workplace are distinctive in the way they relate to people. We believe that every single person from the CEO to the cleaner are made in God’s image, and so that’s going to have very clear implications for the way we relate to people,” he says.

“Secondly, I want to talk about visible distinctiveness. I mention that I want to live in such a way, and I think we all should live in a way, that people question our work choices because our choices clearly betray the fact that we have different priorities and different values. You know, we’re not storing our treasure here; we’re not here to make a name for ourselves. We have very different priorities because we have a very different purpose, a very different reason for our work.

“This gets to my third point. If you look from the outside at a Christian and a non-Christian doing their job, you might see two people who are both working very hard, but they’re both working hard for completely different motivating factors. And I think we’re called in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3 to work really hard, but Paul appeals to the fact that our real master is the Lord Jesus – that’s the reason why – and so there’s a completely different rationale going on underneath the purpose of a Christian worker.”

“We shouldn’t shy away from the ridicule.” – Eddie Woo

Woo accept that there are many challenges in how to live as Christians in a professional context because “our relationship with society is very nuanced and it requires people who are going to think very carefully about how to live in a respectful and servant hearted way – but also be bold.”

He says that if our boldness draws ridicule or mockery from workmates, it’s important not to shy away from that.

“I would take my answer to that somewhat from the way Peter talks about it; he says be so full of good deeds that those who malign you have nothing to criticise you for,” he says, referring to 1 Peter 2:12 in the New Testament.

“You know, the gospel is a scandal. It’s literally a scandal. That’s the word that Paul uses to describe how ludicrous it is that a crucified man on a cross should be the saviour of humanity,” Woo alludes to the original language used by the Apostle Paul in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians.

“That’s a scandal, and so I think we shouldn’t shy away – it takes great courage and support from our fellow brothers and sisters – we shouldn’t shy away from the ridicule.

“What we should do is to say ‘well, why are they ridiculing you?’ … If the reason why we are being opposed is something that’s integral to the gospel, then I think that’s what we should invite. We should expect that fact. What we shouldn’t do is give people a valid reason to criticise because we are not doing our jobs effectively.”

“I know that I don’t get my value from the way people regard me.” – Eddie Woo

A public school teacher for 10 years, Woo has been in demand in many spheres since receiving accolades for his skill in communicating his passion for maths. As leader of innovation for maths teaching in New South Wales, he now travels across the state, mentoring students and other teachers. He retains his job as a maths teacher at Cherrybrook Technology High School in Sydney’s north-western suburbs, taking his Year 12 extension class every morning before school.

To make his life even busier, he has been invited to speak at writers festivals around the country since releasing his book, Woo’s Wonderful World of Maths, late last year.

Woo finds it bizarre that he has become a celebrity – with people stopping him in the street or at airports for selfies.

“I think this is a really important thing about being a Christian – I know that I don’t get my value from the way people regard me. I’m still the same sinner saved by grace today that I was three years ago when nobody knew who I was. That is just reality and I love that the gospel humbles us as well as it’s something that shows us that we don’t deserve anything, and everything we’ve received we’ve received by grace. The biggest delight is to say is that this is not from me – I can remain humble because I know the opportunities, the privileges I get to enjoy – they’re all just gifts from the Father of light from whom every good gift comes.”

Join Eddie Woo at Perth Festival this weekend where he will conduct a workshop, Reimagining Mathematics. He also will discuss Woo’s Wonderful World of Maths on the Full Steam Ahead panel, with Kris Williams on February 23. He will appear at Adelaide Writers Festival next weekend.

Eddie Woo joins Life@Work director Andrew Laird to consider what “living such good lives” in the workplace might look like in Melbourne (February 28 and March 1), Brisbane (March 8 and 9) and Perth (March 15 and 16). Life@Work is an initiative of City Bible Forum. 

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