UPPER SCHOOL MATH,
AUSTIN WITHERITE, “Mr. Dubs”

Allison Hayden (AH) interviewed “Austin Witherite (AW) to find out what authentic Christian education looks like in the Math classroom.

AH: What inspired you what and what got you interested in teaching?

AW: Oh gosh. Well, in high school I was in the boy Scouts. And in the last couple of years in scouting, you would become a mentor-tutor figure for the younger kids. You teach them the skills they need to advance through the ranks.

And I always really enjoyed that; it was one of my favorite things that I got to do.

And about in my junior year, there was a moment for me where I realized, “Oh, I guess I’d actually really like teaching people new things and new skills” and so, from that point, I began to consider teaching as a career.

For a while, I thought I’d like to be a chemistry teacher – until we got to a section in AP Chem that was just terrible…

And I thought, “If I have to teach that section every single year, I would literally hate that. That would be terrible.”

So that was clear: not gonna do chemistry!

But I really enjoyed math and I had always enjoyed helping other kids with math. So, that seemed it would be a good balance of my skill set and something I would enjoy.

And so, even going into college, I was set on being a math teacher. Then, as I went through college, I found all my classes pretty enjoyable.

It’s fun seeing other people learn things and watching them actually understand something for the first time!

AH: That’s really cool! By the way – what was the highest level you made in boy Scouts?

AW: Eagle scout.

AH: I thought you might have been. That’s a huge achievement in life!

My next question is:  Did you have any teachers in high school or college who really inspired you?

And can we talk a little bit about your philosophy of teaching math? That’s something you and I’ve talked about a lot.

How do you feel students learn math best?

AW: Well, as I was going through elementary and junior high and high school, I felt a lot of teachers tried to teach you math just by direct memorization of processes and algorithms.

But I always really enjoyed learning why something worked. When I learned why something worked or when it was explained to me in a way that made sense, I thought I learned those things better. And those are the things I still remember now.

So, I really enjoy learning and teaching math where I’m developing the concepts and the ideas so that, then, students can apply them to different situations.

I’m not just saying, “This is how you solve the problem if it looks this.

I take time to lay a foundation of understanding – and I think that frees students up a lot to be able to apply the concepts. They are also able to understand at a deeper level and work on harder problems.

The first teacher I remember who used that approach was my AP Calc teacher: Mrs. Gramer. She’s fantastic! I think she still teaches at a local high school. She was amazing – she really pushed us to understand what was going on rather than just knowing how to do it.

One of her common phrases was, “I don’t want you to just be able to regurgitate this.”  She wanted us to actually come to terms with it and understand the concept and then, because I think that that’s a really important skill, to be able to apply things you’ve learned to solve problems.

And I think that’s kinda the whole point of math classes that our students don’t always necessarily see.  They just see it as, “Oh, we’re learning math and this is all pointless.”

But it’s fun seeing them learn to apply things that they know, and to grow in their problem-solving abilities.

AH: What would you say to a student – and I know you have students like this – who says, “I’m not planning on being a math teacher. How will I ever use this?”

What do you want your students to walk away with, even if they never directly use their algebra or calculus again?

AW: Yeah. That’s a really common conversation, especially in high school math classes, and in junior high too.

I always try to tell them that the math is important for them to learn because, well, they have to learn math to graduate!

But, beyond that, the skills that we’re working on are relevant life skills. Problem solving and critical thinking are needed in all kinds of careers and real-life situations.

I love it when students are finally able to look at something and to give me some new analysis or profound thought about a graph, for example, because it shows that they are using higher order thinking skills.

Then, another critical life skill that math teaches is just plain old perseverance. When students are dealing with hard math problems, they have to learn how to push through and to be able to almost come up with their own solutions.

They have to be able to inspire themselves to keep working even after they meet a roadblock.

Of course, they’re taught that in a lot of classes. But I think math really brings that out because so many students feel so challenged by it.  

A lot of the time, they hit a roadblock and want to give up. But something that I really want for them, and hope that all my students learn, is to push past what they think they’re capable of and to try to expand their horizons.

AH: Yes – I’ve seen that firsthand even I was in your classroom a couple of weeks ago and a student had gotten to that point where they were giving up.

You were able to modify the problem and help them to progress and feel they could accomplish.

So, on that topic: as you’ve taught pre-algebra all the way up to now AP calculus, how do you incorporate rigorous components into your classes to challenge both students who are struggling and those who are excelling?

AW:  A smaller school gives us a lot more opportunities to do that.

One of the things I do is incorporate projects for every class.  These are activities that extend what students have been learning and are some kind of real-world application.

For example, in Algebra 2, we just got out of polynomials.

Through the whole chapter as they were solving them, students kept thinking and saying, “This is really boring. When am I gonna use all of those things?

And then, at the end of the chapter, I gave them a challenge project. I said, “Hey, you have a piece of paper. Now, make me the biggest box you can out of this one piece of paper.

Of course, they struggled with it and, obviously, I had to come alongside and support them. They didn’t even know where to start because it’s a new way of thinking for them, this whole solving thing. They’re not used to being challenged like that.

But it was really cool to see that productive struggle and then for them to come back at the end of it and say, “You know, I do see how this could be applied now.” 

It’s so rewarding to see that!

I restrain myself from “I told you so…” and say something like, “Yeah, that’s a really cool application.” or, maybe, “I hadn’t thought about that before!

So, projects like this are opportunities to push students because they’re required to think analytically and use higher level cognitive skills.

It’s not me guiding them through something; it’s me giving them a problem and them finding a solution path on their own.

Now, in my high school classes, that’s relatively easy to add in, because you just give them challenging, open-ended problems that aren’t solved in one particular way. And then, while their friends are solving it one way, they’re doing it another way and they get to see that, too.

For middle schoolers, I do some simpler things. For example, I challenge them to explain the math concepts to each other. I have them go up to the front of the room and they’re the teacher for the lesson. They really enjoy that: I think it pushes them to think about it more deeply.

Because it’s one thing to understand, but it’s an entirely different thing to try to explain to somebody who doesn’t understand!

As teachers we know that, but from a student perspective, until they’ve done this, I don’t think they understand that there’s a jump there that they have to make. That they have to have a deeper understanding to explain it.

I sometimes do this in high school classes too, but I’ve found that it’s the middle schoolers’ favorite thing to do, to be the teacher.

AH: That’s great! Let’s talk about one of our other school wide “R” values: being Rooted in the Gospel and teaching everything from a Biblical worldview.

In math, I can imagine that it’s a little bit more challenging to do that. The content is very much black and white: these are the problems; these are the solutions.

How do you incorporate a Biblical worldview or use a Biblical lens into your teaching or math?

AW: You’re right – that’s been one that I constantly think about. There is no polynomial in the Bible – or any math, other than just counting and measuring.

But we get to have just really cool conversations about how, yes, this math is hard, but, at the same time, it’s allowing you to explore His Creation a bit. You’re preparing to get a little peek under the hood.

I show them that math is in everything and that what they’re learning applies to so many things in the real world.

And then, a major Biblical worldview teaching point is just the attitudes that we approach math with. We have a lot of conversations about that. I ask them things like, “Is the way you’re approaching this math class, is the attitude you have, is that honoring to God? Are you showing His glory through the way that you’re reacting to this right now?

So, yes, in math it’s less about lining the content up with Biblical truths, because, again, that’s really hard.

But I think there are cool messages that we can talk about in a math class that are deeply rooted in the Gospel and in the truths of the Bible.

AH: That’s awesome. Well, in closing, one last thing: What do you desire for your students? What do you hope that when they leave your class they will become?

You’re a highly relational teacher and, in our conversations, we’ve talked through this, but what are some desires you have for your students as you’ve gotten to know them and build those relationships whether it’s about math or about being a human being in life?

Especially for those students walking out of your classroom as seniors, what do you hope are some of the things you would love to see in them?

AW: I talk about this with my juniors and seniors a lot, just cause, obviously, they’re closer to walking out of here and not coming back next year.

Frankly, I tell them the math is important.

Definitely.

But that’s not what I want for them. I want them to be independent learners.

I want them to be able to persevere in their learning and not just give up whenever it gets hard.

I really, really desire for them to understand how their actions and reactions and their words and the way that they carry themselves all reflects on God and how that reflects on Christ. And I want them to understand that their attitudes towards things that they don’t like are more telling to the world than the things that they do enjoy.

I think that’s a unique learning opportunity in math because people either love math or they hate math.

There’s not an in-between. And so just getting them to see that they can dislike something – and that’s okay – but the important thing is to be able to express that in a way that honors and glorifies God and not just say, “Oh, this is dumb!/This person or situation is the worst!

I want them to learn to be able to communicate their frustrations in a way that represents them and their Creator in a fantastic way.

And then the last one is this: I just want them to be good people when they leave.  I want them to be better people than they were when they came in. And for them to actually grow and not just settle with a sense of “I’m (already) a pretty good person.”

I want them to feel challenged and that they’ve grown. I want them to be feel that they didn’t just waste a year in whatever math class they were in, but that they learned something from it.

AH: Thank you for doing this interview!

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