I stumbled across a release from the UNLV College of Education the other day, reflecting on the career of the school’s Math Learning Center Director Bill Speer, who just happened to be my Secondary Methods professor when I was working towards my teaching degree. He was president of the Nevada Mathematics Council at the time, and got me to my first (and to date, only) NCTM National Convention.
I recall at least an anecdote, if not a bit more, about each of my college math instructors. For Dr. Speer, it was a tale he shared with us of “The Epiphany”. Five years into his teaching career, he had a student who was struggling with figuring square roots by hand. Dr. Speer walked him through the algorithm time and again, but the student eventually came back with a piercing question:
Dr. Speer recalls that question caught him a bit off guard. Until then, nobody ever really cared about why you did the steps. He sat down with the student and they figured out The Why together. He told us that moment changed the way he taught, forever.
That change culminated this year in the NCTM’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
The UNLV release included a quote from the Dean of the College of Education, Kim Metcalf:
“And there are tens of thousands of people who now teach a certain way, and hundreds of thousands of students who have learned or are learning math in a way that is the direct result of the work and research of Bill Speer.”
I’m one of them. So if my students ever wonder why I “teach weird”, now they know who to blame. And I hope I always remember to take time to answer every time they ask “why?”
He’s one of those people who is known by a single name. At least in this state. Bob Knight made a recruiting visit to watch him play in eighth grade (before recruiting middle schoolers was a thing). He’s Indiana’s all-time leading scorer amongst boys players, and he led his high school team to a state championship in front of 41,000 fans in the Hoosier Dome in 1990. He went on to become an All-American at Indiana University, leading the Hoosiers to the 1992 Final Four.
His son is a junior now, playing at the same high school and wearing his dad’s familiar number 22. So, you know, no pressure, right?
“I love basketball, and it’s a challenge,” he says. “I know people expect me to be like my dad, and I’m not my dad, I’m my own person. I think it’s a good challenge, and I like challenges. A last-second shot, I’m the one that wants to take it.”
Pretty level-headed 17-year-old, all things considered.
Meanwhile, here’s Damon on the whole thing:
“For us, we’ve just tried to teach them the right way to handle it,” Damon says. “There’s going to be a lot of good and a lot of bad that comes out of it. For every person that thinks you’re great, there’s going to be 10 people that think you’re not very good. That’s part of it, so just try to have fun playing the game. Basketball’s going to end for all of us at some point. It’s what you learn through the game that’s important.”
In front of us, Brayton is driving and finishing on the left side, using the rim to ward off 6-5 David Ejah of Fort Wayne Carroll.
“I’ve always told my kids: However good I was, and that can be debated, I don’t want them to be as good as me, I don’t want them to play like me,” Damon says. “I want Brayton to be the best player he can be, whatever that is. Whether you shoot it as well as anyone else, are as athletic, as big, I want you to go out and compete as hard as you can, and whatever happens, I’m going to be pretty happy as a parent.”
Isn’t that kind of what we all want, whether we are teachers or parents? Teach them right, sit back, and let the chips fall?
I doubt seriously any of my students will remember me 10 years from now. I keep connected with quite a few of them on social media, and I love watching them become adults handling their business. Whether it involves math or not.
I don’t have a learning tree like Bill Speer does. I’m halfway through my teaching career, getting ready to start Year 16 in a month or so. I’m closer to 70 than I am to 30. (Not by much, but still). I’ve probably taught a bit less than 2000 kids in that time. My influence? Minimal. But all my kids have gone on to do life the best they can. I can live with that. It’s a “small L” legacy, which is cool by me.
They aren’t their mom, or their dad, or their math teacher, or anybody else. They are themselves. Which is hard work, but also, pretty damn rewarding.
One day Brayton won’t be “Damon Bailey’s son”, he’ll just be whatever he turns out to be.
And that’s the real lifetime achievement.