The Teacher That Most Influenced My Teaching of Mathematics: Mr. Scott, My History Teacher

I wish Mr. Scott was still alive…

This November 11 marks a most special anniversary — the end of World War I.

For me, the anniversary is a chance for me to honor someone who was not only my favorite high school teacher, but would be someone that would eventually have the greatest influence on me as a math educator.

It was sometime in Spring of 2013, the year I quit teaching high school, that I bumped into a phys. ed. teacher named Mr. Eisel. He was a retired teacher from my old high school who was doing some substitute work. I never had him as a teacher, but he was a familiar face. I told him that I was a student at Sir John A. MacDonald high school back in the early 80’s. And, even though I told him I was never in his class, he wanted to know my name, and talk about the school, the teachers, and the still occasional get-togethers. At that moment, I remarked, “is Mr. Scott still kicking everyone’s ass in ping pong.” There was a noticeable pause before Mr. Eisel said that Mr. Scott had passed away a few years ago — ironically fitting on November 11, Remembrance Day

Here is the link to the entire tribute article.

Generally speaking, we are not to be alerted to the passing of our teachers. They teach us. We go away. Most we forget. A few, we fondly remember. Then, there are the rarest of them that influence our lives in the most visible of ways. But, unless there are formal reunions and such, there are no notifications of their deaths. We just naturally assume, that when a sufficient time has passed, that they have departed this Earth.

Mr. Scott is the only teacher whose death I was made aware of. And, because the news was conveyed by a still very fit Mr. Eisel, I knew that Mr. Scott must have succumbed to some disease.

His passing coincided with my last year of teaching. Those two events subconsciously marinated together for a while before I came to a very happy conclusion that Mr. Scott was the most influential teacher on how I approached teaching mathematics.

First, his energy coming into the packed classrooms everyday was upbeat and infectious. He was a tall, Gandalfian figure. I remember his routine for my afternoon Canadian history class distinctly. He would come in with breathing slightly labored from probably playing several ping pong matches in the teacher’s lounge. He would have a cup of fresh coffee in his hand. He would take a satisfying slurp, roll up the sleeves of his long dress shirt — indicating it was time to get on with the serious business of history — and then he would begin his magical storytelling.

Rick Scott rarely wrote notes on the board. Quite often, it was just his animated stances — coffee in hand, one leg on a desk/chair, leaning into the classroom — that helped us vividly remember historic details. Mr. Scott gave us more than just details. He gave us the impression that he was there.

He was almost like that Twilight Zone character, Walter Jameson, who had an uncanny knack for knowing every important detail in history. It turned out this was because Walter Jameson was given the gift/curse to live forever.

Sadly, Mr. Scott was mortal. But, his spirit was and always has been…immortal.

While their are many moments that I remember fondly from being in his classes, my favorite memory is when we studied World War I. This was well before the age of social media. We might have watched a video or two, but it was simply the transmission power of Mr. Scott’s voice — passionate, with an art for emphasizing emotion at the right time.

Everything about World War I resonated inside of me. Mr. Scott’s tales and vivid recollection of Canadian heroism in the trenches of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge made be realize the sacrifice — sacrifice in unflinching detail — of those young soldiers. I never was never more grateful and proud to be Canadian as I was a boy closing out his teenage years in high school.

Mr. Scott was a great teacher because he seamlessly wove the sensibilities/maturity of high school students of that time into the power of storytelling. We all felt the misery of war, stench of death, and the unselfish acts of valor.

The greatest way to communicate is through storytelling. And yes, history automatically lends itself to that, but it takes a very, very special teacher to have words from the past become tattooed to you — especially in something like how you approach teaching the subject of mathematics. One of my co-editors at Q.E.D., Junaid Mubeen, wrote a compelling piece about history and mathematics almost two years ago.

As math education searches for a vector to carry it into the future, no search will be complete without detailed attention to equity, which voices get heard in the classroom, and what stories get told about mathematics.

If Mr. Scott was still alive, and if he had also been a mathematics teacher, I am certain he would have woven in stories of Hypatia of Alexandria, Aryabhatta, Pingala, Seki Kowa, Sophie Germain, Blaise Pascal, Georg Cantor, David Hilbert, and so many, many others…

Mr Scott, where ever you might be, your influence has spanned well beyond your teaching career and life. And, for me, your legacy is firmly implanted in what I believe is the essence of mathematics — storytelling. The image below has been used a few times in previous articles by me. There is something now omnipresent about it. Everything about teaching — relationships, connection, meaning, purpose, and equity — is symbolized by the Borromean Rings. If one is not connected, the whole thing falls apart.

In honor of Mr. Scott. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of World War I. My wish is for teachers of mathematics to reflect on the power of stories and to seek out new tales and yarns about the most beautiful and important idea in our universe — mathematics.

Just like history is more than dates and events in a textbook, mathematics is more than just symbols on a page. There are rich, human stories behind each one of them.

If we don’t tell these stories, who will…?

Mr. Scott, I am eternally grateful for your wisdom, devotion, and inspiration. It has been a huge influence for coloring my teaching of mathematics with the rich, human ideas of history that only someone like you could have done.

Lest we forget…