Last Friday, apart from being the day I celebrated my 1st Ph.D.-versary, was special for another reason. Friday represented the last official lecture of one Jack Weiner, a man who taught me Calculus way back in the old time-y days of 1994.
To celebrate his last lecture before retirement, he invited the staff and faculty of the Math & Stats department, as well as former students, his current students, his family and friends, to join him. It was incredible. The room – Rozanski 104 – was packed, and this is a room that holds about 700 students if memory serves me. There were people standing along the aisles and from what I could tell, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. The numbers clearly were a reflection of the impact that Jack has had on all of us over the years; young and old, lovers of all things math, and perhaps even those that are still a bit math-phobic; the room was packed with people who wanted to hear what Jack had to say. We all wanted to be there to celebrate his special day.
And it was a special day. Jack decided to skip the usual classroom discussion, opting instead to talk to us about the importance of mathematics, and learning. He included pictures of himself as a child, told us of stories about his life as a high school teacher, and later described his return to the University of Guelph as Professor of Mathematics. The thing that was abundantly clear: Jack still has the charisma to captivate an audience, his passion for mathematics hasn’t waned over 30+ years of Calculus instruction, and Jack loves loves loves teaching. These are things that I’m sure come as shock to no one.
I’m also sure that no one would be shocked to hear that Jack received a standing ovation at the end of his talk. But this wasn’t just a standing ovation for what he told us during this his last lecture. It was a standing ovation for all the years of work he has put in. It was a reflection and a show of appreciation for someone who has devoted his life to teaching. And it was completely deserved.
In an age where most universities are focusing only on research (a mistake in my humble opinion), here is a man who helped shape literally thousands of minds. One has to wonder how many of those minds continued on in mathematics because they had a teacher that took the time to lay down the foundations, a teacher who cared about their success, a teacher who knew how to teach? How many of those students are now teachers themselves, working to train the next set of brilliant minds, and challenging our best and brightest to be better and brighter? It awes me to think of the impact that this man has had. Sadly, I think people like Jack are few and far between these days. And I don’t think that will change until people pay more than just lip-service to the importance of good teachers.
Ultimately, the celebration got me thinking about my own teaching. As a brand spanking new faculty member, I am charged with teaching at least 2 courses per year. This summer I will be teaching Experimental Design in the School of Computer Science. I’ve also just wrapped up (save for the final exams) my courses for this semester – Calculus for the Biological Sciences for the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and Advanced Methods in Population Modelling for the Department of Integrative Biology. Anyway, after listening to Jack and seeing all the lives he’s touched, it made me wonder what impact I might have. I mean, I’ve already taught 7 courses, and co-taught 2 others. Over the years I’ve tutored 100s of students. The potential for changing opinions about mathematics and inspiring students to learn is huge. The question is, will I be as successful a teacher as Jack (and the other amazing teachers I’ve been so fortunate to have had during my education – I’m looking specifically at you Gerarda, Herb, and Pal)?
I don’t have an answer to that as of yet. All I can say is that I hope to have the impact that Jack, Gerarda, Herb, and Pal have had (and continue to have). In fact, if I can be half the teacher that any of them are, I will consider myself a success. But clearly, based on what I’ve experienced and the show of support that Jack has received as he starts his retirement, the bar has been set high; this will be the challenge of my life. And one that I’m going to do everything I can do to attain.
To all of the teachers out there that have shaped my life and my education, might I simply say thank you.