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What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.
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(Photo: Vern Williams)

(Photo: Vern Williams)

More than half a century ago, Vern Williams walked into a middle school math classroom—and he’s never really left. After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1972, he began teaching in Virginia's Fairfax County Public School System, working at Longfellow Middle School's gifted and talented program as well as the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Summer Program. President George W. Bush appointed him to the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, and he won two national awards from the Mathematics Association of America. Williams talked to Pacific Standard about doing difficult math for fun, the troubling difference between the brightest students in 1980 and today, and the benefits of putting the smartest kids in one room.

What was your schooling like growing up?

I went to Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C., back in the far Dark Ages. It's embarrassing to tell you how long ago, but I've been teaching for over 40 years, so you can do the math. I went to Paul Junior High, and that's important because that's when I decided I was going to be a math teacher. In ninth grade, I just flat-out decided that this was the place I wanted to be. I wanted to be like the people who were teaching me. The best way to do that was to become a teacher and teach in junior high.

I went to the University of Maryland for four years, got a bachelor's degree in math education. Back then, math education wasn't a bad word because you had to do real math. That's all I wanted. The university was eight miles from my house. I commuted. I knew they had an excellent engineering program, so I extrapolated from that that the math would be fine. I graduated, became a math teacher in Fairfax County, and I've been here for 40 years. It's a very simple story.

Were you in honors classes?

When I was in junior high and high school, it wasn't so much honors. It was called "college-bound." That was a big deal. I was on that track. But it wasn't nearly as high-powered as some of the stuff we have today. I did just fine on the SATs. I didn't get 800s, but I scored pretty high. But we didn't have any of the contests that kids do today. We just did the [American Mathematics Competition]. I don't remember how well I did.

"You always had that core of kids who just love learning. Period. They just live for it. They are some of the quirkiest kids in the universe. They may not have the best study habits or be able to tie their shoes, but they just want to walk backward in the hall while reading a book. We still have those, but we used to have more of those."

What did you find so appealing about teaching?

I didn't even really like school until junior high. I try to teach the way that my teachers taught because when I walked into junior high after being in elementary school, everything was different. We had these things called lockers. We had six or seven different teachers. The building was bigger. We met kids from other elementary schools.

That was already impressive, and then we walked into the classroom and the content was different. It was new. It was something that we hadn't done in sixth grade or fifth grade. The attitude of the teachers was much more serious. Elementary school was mostly playtime. In junior high it was more of a business atmosphere: "We're getting you ready for high school, which is going to get you ready for college." I loved that. For some reason, it just struck me. I became a much better student almost instantly, and the more I became a better student, the more interesting the material became. It snowballed. I started going to libraries, looking at math that was above the course that I was doing, and making all kinds of cool connections. Something just told me that I wanted to do it forever. I just wanted to teach junior high.

When I was in high school, I did all the typical things that high school kids did, but I already knew what I was going to do. High school was just a place for me to hang out so that I could go to college to hang out so that I could come back to junior high. Here I am, still in junior high.

It's one of the nice middle school experiences. Generally, middle school is a bad experience. When I tell my neighbors that I teach middle school, they want to buy me a cake and a rocking chair to make me comfortable. But I really just loved that experience. It was awesome. Everything clicked.

How have the students changed over the last 40 years in how they relate to the material?

At my own school, and I think in general, you always had that core of kids who just love learning. Period. They just live for it. They are some of the quirkiest kids in the universe. They may not have the best study habits or be able to tie their shoes, but they just want to walk backward in the hall while reading a book. We still have those, but we used to have more of those.

Now, we're getting kids—especially into the higher-level courses—who have more of an agenda. They want to get into Thomas Jefferson, which will get them into M.I.T., which will get them somewhere else. They feel like they can't have a B+ in algebra in seventh grade because that will show up on the transcript. They become grade mongers, trying to con points. The parents are the same way. I'm getting too much of that as opposed to “I'm just here for the ride. An A would be nice but that's not my number-one concern.” Twenty or 25-ish years ago, I had so much more of that than I have now. I miss it.

The other thing is that the kids aren't grouped as rigorously as they were 20, 25 years ago. They used to group the gifted kids in Fairfax County by IQ. I believe the cutoff was 140. When you get 25 of those people in a room, good things tend to happen as far as learning is concerned. You can have other issues with those kids that will drive teachers out of a classroom, but the learning thing and the excitement is amazing. Get 25 140-plus IQ kids in a room and you're ready to roll. Now they are much, much more spread out. At one time, a student like Charles—who is definitely an outlier—would have had more than just four or five peers close enough in ability to choose from to create a peer group. He doesn't have that luxury anymore.

What do you do for intellectual pursuits beyond the teaching?

I do a lot of non-fiction stuff. I was never one of these people who got into plays, concerts, and a lot of literature. I'll read a lot about politics, current events, and a ton of math problems. I learned math in middle school, high school, and college, and took some math classes after college, but I never got a master's. It was largely because of attitude. An education degree now is not exactly something to brag about. I could have three or four doctorates if I pursued the Ed.D. But because if I get an advanced degree I would want it to mean something, it would have to be in pure math. That means real dedicated time, work, and effort. I got so tied up in the teaching that I never had a chance to pursue that.

After I started teaching bright kids and had to find ways to keep them going, I started getting into branches of math that I never cared about, such as number theory, set theory, and especially advanced contest-type problems. I do a ton of that now just for intellectual pursuit. I would have never done them right after college. I just wanted to teach math, and I knew enough to show kids how to do math. Now I want to know math that, whether I'm teaching it or not, is cool to know it.

I have been doing martial arts forever, and some of that is intellectual but not on the level of the math.

Do you see the focus on grades and testing swinging back in the other direction? Is there any hope for getting back to the love of learning?

I was going to say that the emphasis on standardized testing affected the average kids more than bright kids, but because we have minimum standards on our state testing, as long as bright kids are prepared to do the minimum standard, some teachers won't push them further. They are stuck doing benchmark number 28 just to make sure they score "pass/advance" on some state test. That's where it's hurting the bright kids.

I think the pendulum will swing back. I know it is. It's already starting to in Virginia because they are going to let school systems come up with their own types of assessments. The only problem I have with that is that with minimum competence testing, at least the kids have to know something. I don't care if you're going to only test them on adding 1/2 to 1/3. If they are going to be tested, they have to be able to do that problem. Before the state testing and the "over-emphasis on testing," there was no accountability. That's when the fuzzy math really had its heyday. If I put Johnny in a group and let them do a cute little project but they will never learn how to factor a polynomial, I can do that until the cows come home. But if there is some state test somewhere that says this kid has to sit in a room and do a test by himself, not with a group of four, it's the responsibility of you as a teacher to make sure that kid can do that.

I have mixed feelings. I don't want the tests to totally go away. But I want the emphasis to get lowered. That way the bright kids can go nuts and do all the things they need to do and the average kids can at least get a taste of something other than what's going to be on the test. But if the tests ever turn into "We're going to do some opaque assessment where someone does a play describing what the square root of two would look like if it was colored red," then we have a problem.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.