BUHS Math teacher wins Yale Award

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BRATTLEBORO — Kevan O'Donnell, a local math teacher who retired last June from Brattleboro Union High School, has received a 2017 Yale Educator Award. O'Donnell was nominated by Ryan Taggard, a former student who is a freshman at Yale University.

"The recognition is as much a testament to Ryan's ability as a persuasive writer," O'Donnell said of the nominating letter Taggard wrote. "When he was a junior, he won second place statewide in the Bernie Sanders essay contest."

Taggard's letter said in part, "Some teachers have a gift for conveying knowledge. Others inspire students to master new subject matter. Still others are exemplary role models, giving their students an ideal to strive towards. (Kevan O'Donnell is) a man who succeeds in filling all these roles and provides a truly singular experience for those fortunate enough to study mathematics with him."

Yale's Educator Recognition Program honors outstanding educators from around the world who have supported and inspired their students to achieve at high levels. This year, of the 411 nominees representing 42 states and 24 countries, 58 teachers and 30 counselors were chosen to receive the award.

O'Donnell sees himself as "an ambassador for mathematics. I want to make it accessible to everybody," he said.

This, he acknowledges, is no small task.

"Our whole culture surrounds us with the idea that `math is hard,'" he said, "something that is exacerbated with young girls, who learn early on that they're not supposed to be good at math. There's the stigma of students believing, `If I can't do math, I must be a bad person.' That attitude sucks the lifeblood out of a beautiful subject."

One of the problems with public education, he added, is an arbitrary schedule as to when certain subjects are taught and learned.

"Not everyone's `math receptance zone' develops at the same time," he said.

O'Donnell's first love was music. He played French horn in the high school band.

"I had the opportunity in high school to teach a music theory class," he said, "and I taught the music theory I'd learned the year before."

He auditioned at Ithaca College as a music major.

"They sent me a very nice letter suggesting I try a different department," he said, "so I did."

Throughout his teaching career, O'Donnell has puzzled over this conundrum: "I see otherwise talented, super-smart, awesome people struggling with my subject," he said, "and it just doesn't add up. It ought to be a piece of cake for them to learn math, but it's not. That's been the challenge."

After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree at Ithaca, O'Donnell did graduate work at Cornell.

"I was a teaching assistant, which meant I received a stipend," he said. "I gave Friday lectures on computer programming, graded papers, and wrote curriculum. I managed to do my Master's degree work within a year.

"For my thesis," he continued, "I researched what engages people in learning. I always thought it was some level of cognitive conflict within the material, but my data did not support that. Asked which math problems were engaging, students said, `I like those problems because I can do them.' It turns out a student has to feel comfortable with the material to feel competent."

After a year-and-a-half teaching math in Trumansburg, New York, as a leave replacement, O'Donnell took a math position at the high school in Wilmington, Vermont.

"That's where I cut my teeth as a teacher," he said. "I had 10 wonderful years there, and I enjoyed it immensely. The community was wonderful. But as the only math teacher, I was a lone figure. I wanted math department colleagues."

So, when a position became available at BUHS, O'Donnell applied and taught there for 21 years.

"I started teaching the calculus class in 2010-2011," he said. "A couple of years later, one of my students who had taken calc as a junior asked if, as a senior, he could be my teaching assistant in calculus. A student has done that every year since."

Taggard was in O'Donnell's statistics class as a sophomore and took calculus as a junior. Then his senior year, he was the teaching assistant in calculus.

It's a complete mystery to me what it was that I did right," O'Donnell said. "I can't profess to know. However, I am convinced that the true value in any transmission of knowledge, no matter the subject, is the social aspect of it.

"What characterizes my classes," he continued, "is my drive to make it a social experience. I try to draw everybody into that. No one is on their phone or listening to a music device."

There are people who are convinced teaching is a science, O'Donnell observed, with scientific principles proven to be effective in all situations.

"I think teaching is an art form," O'Donnell said. "There aren't any steadfast principles applied across-the-board. I could never plan a lesson until I saw who was going to be joining me. Knowledge is what you create with the group that's assembled."

Because of his approach to the classroom, O'Donnell experienced frustration over the dilemma students face with early dismissals due to sports, something he, himself, faced as a college student. He was dedicated to his sport, which was rowing. His dean insisted O'Donnell had to do his student teaching in the spring of his senior year. Spring is peak time for rowing competitions. Rather than give up rowing, O'Donnell took his degree without teacher certification. He student-taught the following spring.

"So I understand the dilemma," he said. "But as a teacher, I got so frustrated over not having kids there. I'm intent on creating a classroom social culture. How do you get the knowledge (developed in class that day) to the person who has missed the class? How do you restore that individual back? The whole class suffers when people are absent. I used to get requests, `This student will be out for the week. Can you send us the work?' Not really. I can send a bunch of papers, but that's not the work."

O'Donnell shared an email he recently received from a former student, now in college, who wrote, "I appreciate the opportunities that have become a possibility because I had you as a teacher."

"I tried to do right by my students," O'Donnell said. "My classes were successful primarily because of the students, how they interacted and helped each other. One of the things I really enjoyed about teaching was sparring with the teenage mind with the hope of getting students to a place where they enjoy learning."



Nancy A. Olson, a frequent contributor to the Reformer, can be reached at olsonnan47@gmail.com.

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