Skip to Main Content

WM: Calculating the Sum of a Teacher

The bell rings. In the hall, voices bounce between backpacks and lockers. 

“Hi Mr. Wilson!” repeats as students trickle into seventh-period calculus and take their seats. One student takes the teacher position in front of the class, marker in hand. The bell rings again and she begins the discussion of the four-part group test question. 

Jeff Wilson ’91 stands in the back listening, giving no hints as the students work through the problem. 

“Can somebody say the answer and then look at his face to see if we’re right?” asks one of the dozen upperclassmen in the room. “If we’re wrong, he’ll make this face,” she says, scrunching her face in concentrated doubt. Wilson shrugs his shoulders and laughs. 

A few minutes into class, a student sits down in the back to take a makeup test. Wilson tends to the student while continuing to follow the classroom conversation. Once the discussion has ended, he collects the group portion of the exam and takes over at the head of the class, answering questions and walking through sample problems before the individual section of the exam the next day. 

The bell rings again and the students file out, heading to various after-school activities. The makeup test continues. A student in a forest green letter jacket comes in. “Mr. Wilson? Can you help me with this?” 

While he’s at the board walking through an explanation, a second student sits down in the back. The first student leaves and Wilson checks in with the new student— back to board—triangles, right angles, SOH CAH TOA. The student has been out of school for three weeks quarantining; Wilson reassures her that he will help her get caught up and make sure she understands the material she’s missed. 

“When you go to drama rehearsal, can I stay here and work on my other homework?” she asks. “If I go home, I know I won’t get it done.” 

“Sure,” Wilson answers. “The door is always open.” 

The school day ended 30 minutes ago. Without a moment to catch his breath, Wilson heads down the hall to the auditorium for the first off-book rehearsal of the upcoming theater production. He watches, listens, feeds a line here and there, and calls out lighting cues. Two hours later, he’s almost ready to leave the school, where he has been since 6 a.m. Next, he’s headed to town to get the last few props for the play. 

In his 30th year teaching math and leading the drama department at Triton Central High School, southeast of Indianapolis, Wilson’s teaching mimics much of what and how he learned at Wabash—interaction, student discussion, and letting students lead the conversation to find solutions. 

“I was a great student in high school,” Wilson says. “I studied really hard and I had great grades, but I was a memorizer. And memorizing will only get you so far. 

“I had a graduate assistant at Wabash that finally told me, ‘You’re trying to memorize everything instead of understanding the big picture.’ So I work hard as a teacher to make sure kids are seeing the big picture, letting them talk through stuff and arguing points so they understand it and aren’t just memorizing formulas for the test.” 

Both Wilson’s parents were teachers. Seeing the time and energy teaching took and the lack of respect they received, he headed to Wabash with no intention of pursuing a career in education. He had his sights set on engineering. 

“My parents said, ‘That’s fine, go find what you want to do,’” says Wilson. “But God really got ahold of my heart. He started showing me He made me to be a teacher.” 

Wilson credits his academic advisor, Dr. Robert Cooley H’77, in the math department for keeping him engaged. 

“He was really my dad on campus,” recalls Wilson. “I was getting really frustrated with math. He called me into his office one day and said, ‘Jeff, you are not a natural mathematician. But I’ve never seen anybody grasp the big picture better. You find ways to learn it and to teach other people. You’re a teacher.’” 

Even with the nudges Wilson felt from God, he doubted he could get through to graduation as a math major at Wabash. 

“Dr. Cooley told me, ‘We’ll make sure you get through the last two years,’” Wilson says. “And they did. The faculty did lots of office hours with me. They understood I was struggling, but knew I really wanted to learn.” 

Later, when Wilson began teaching, Cooley visited his former student’s classroom. 

“He would come and watch me teach. He told me, ‘You found ways to connect it. Most high school math teachers are also natural mathematicians. They expect kids to get it. You have the ability to reach those kids who don’t naturally get it. You explain it like I’ve never seen before by singing a song or doing a skit about it. And the kids really brighten up in your room like they don’t in other math classes.’” 

“I want kids to be able to relate to things and visualize what’s going on. I don’t care if they memorize formulas or not. But do they understand what they’re doing? Can they communicate it back?” 

Hearing that inspired Wilson to continue pulling from his wealth of experiences growing up, like working in a live theater and hiking through state and national parks, to create memorable learning moments for his students. 

“It's what I thrive on in my room,” Wilson says. “I want kids to be able to relate to things and visualize what’s going on. I don’t care if they memorize formulas or not. If they want to make a crib sheet for the test, go ahead, make the crib sheet. But do they understand what they’re doing? Can they communicate it back? 

“I understand that 90% of the kids in my room are only here because they have to be. So, how can I make sure they really understand it? I want them to be great analyzers, even if they’re not great mathematicians.” 

His students may not yet fully appreciate the thought and care Wilson puts into his teaching, but they are quick to point out what they see as his most admirable traits. 

“He teaches it like it’s easy. Then I think, ‘Oh, that is easy.’” 

“He gives us enough time to work things out ourselves. But he’s also willing to answer questions, no matter how many we have.” 

“He has really funny concepts that help me remember. He was talking about Christmas and presents under the tree for getting common denominators.” 

“Song parodies are one of the things he’s known for.” “Right! There was the quadratic formula to a Tom Petty song.” 

“He makes it fun.” 

Like many good teachers, the Frankfort, Indiana, native has been recruited to teach in larger, more prominent schools. But even after 30 years at Triton Central, he has never considered leaving. 

“This is just a wonderful community. It’s a perfect fit for me. For the most part, students come from the same background I did—small, rural farming communities. I can relate to their background much more than I could have in a bigger school system. 

“I love these kids.” 

Ambassador Wilson 

My parents were both very good public school teachers. We had every summer off as a family. For three summers we would load up the pop-up camper, go to Indiana State Parks, and see every single historical site in Indiana. Then every fourth summer, they saved up money to take a big, long trip somewhere in the United States, with their goal being to try to get me and my sister to all 48 contiguous states by high school graduation. We made it to 40. I have since made it to all 50. 

When the National Park Service celebrated its centennial in 2016. They did a competition through the National Park Foundation where you could submit a photo you had taken in a national park and an essay as to why that particular park is so crucial to you. 

I do a unit every year in my pre-calculus class on Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, which is one of my favorite national park sites, where we study the archaeological buildings and how the ancestral Puebloan people engineered them to line up with the winter and summer solstices. 

I ended up making the final five in the competition. 

One of the five judges was Bill Nye, the Science Guy. He selected mine as the winning essay. As a result, in 2016, I was named a National Park Ambassador. Nye sent my essay to lots of rangers and they wanted me to visit and talk about how I use the national parks in the classroom. 

Since then, I’ve visited nearly 400 of the national park sites. Every vacation I’m constantly off—spring, winter, and summer breaks—trying to go out and visit different park rangers. It’s been kind of a whirlwind. 

It’s been a lot of fun getting to share what I do in my classroom. A lot of it is just supplemental material. I’ll make the answers to a worksheet line up in a puzzle where you fill in the blanks. Or we did a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day project where they learned which top-five African American sites are visited every year. 

We calculated the surface area of Lake Michigan, and the kids were looking at me like, you’re crazy— there’s no formula for that. That’s kind of the whole point. Let’s see if we can adapt this formula to how the cartographers do it. See how they come up with that number and how close you can get. It’s fun watching the kids spend a whole period just doing that one problem. Obviously, they can Google the answer. But they have to show the calculations and most of them get within about 1,000 square feet, which is pretty impressive. 

Anytime I have a chance to adapt math to the national parks, the kids can learn a little more. That’s what impressed so many of the rangers—just realizing you don’t need to have a whole curriculum on parks, you just need to find places to talk about them any chance you get. 

I want to promote the parks and help kids realize there’s more to America than just going to Florida every spring break and lying on the beach. 

—Jeff Wilson